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Organising science unconferences

by Eva Amsen

To continue the previous post, here’s a summary of some tips for organising science unconferences. I covered about a third or half of this in my SciBarCamb session, but I tried to make this a bit more complete.
scibarcamp schedule - organising science unconferences
There are really only two things you need to organise an unconference:Location

  • Location
  • People

The first may be the hardest to find, but the second is the most important.
Everything in the, roughly chronological, list below either relates to finding a location, or to keeping people happy.

1. PEOPLE

No matter what event you’re trying to organise, you can’t just hire a venue and hope people show up. There have to be people who are definitely going to come.
Start with finding a few people who are interested in what you’re planning. Hopefully, some will be able to help you co-organise, but even just having a one-off meeting with people can be very useful to test the water for your ideas.

2a. DATE

Picking a date goes hand in hand with finding a location, because your venue of choice needs to be available. You’re obviously aiming for a date at which all the organisers are available, but also try to make sure you’re not competing with similar events, and look at university term dates.

2b. LOCATION

Location can be anywhere, but for practical, organisational, purposes there are two types of locations: Free locations and those that cost money.

You might be able to get a free venue via someone who has access to office space that you can use. Scientists can’t always use their institutes, but some do have access to meeting rooms or contacts at facilities management, so it’s worth asking.

If you get a free location, this saves you so much fundraising pain. Nobody likes fundraising. Of course, if someone offers you space for free, you better at least make them “main sponsor”, or perhaps even bill them as “co-organiser”, because without them you’d be nowhere. Literally.

Venues that are not free can vary in price from affordable to ridiculous. On the affordable side of things are university buildings and related societies – especially in between terms when the spaces are otherwise empty. On the unaffordable end of the spectrum are official conference venues.
If you get to the point where you know you’re going to have to pay for a venue, you’ll also need money. Set a reasonable budget: how much do you think you’ll be able to get from sponsors? Then use that budget to find a location.

3. SPONSORS

I hate fundraising. I hate it so much. “Can I please have some money?” Ugh, it’s the worst. But I also hate not having fun and inspirational events, and sometimes these cost money…

The trick to finding sponsors is to already have sponsors. You look a lot more legit if you already have a company logo on your website, or if you can tell Company Y that Company X has agreed to sponsor.

So where do you find your first sponsor?

  • Friends or employers of organisers.
  • Have someone give you something (space, materials) that doesn’t cost them anything.

Even with a first sponsor in place, asking for money is awkward. Open calls are the easiest and least awkward, but not always successful. To approach companies directly, you’ll need to find out who to write to. You can ring them up and ask who normally handles such requests.

Design sponsor packages that people/companies can afford. If you need, say, £1000 for your event, you can get that by searching long and hard for one sponsor to give you £1000, or you can look for 5 sponsors to each contribute £200.

4. ADMISSION FEES

If it looks like you can’t find an affordable venue on sponsor money alone, you might consider setting an admission fee. The problem with admission fees at barcamp-like events is that it negates the idea of the event being accessible for anyone, so if you really need to do this, keep it very low, and maybe consider letting students in for free.

5. REGISTRATION and PROMOTION

Now that you have your venue, organisers and at least one sponsor and/or set an admission fee, you can start to open registration.

If you want variety in attendees, make sure to do a *lot* of promotion. Emails, online forum posts, posters – whatever you need to reach the people you want to reach before registration closes.
EventBrite is great for handling registrations and keeping track of how many spots are still available. At SciBarCamb, we used EventBrite to release tickets in batches: It gave us time to do promotion, and the new people we approached could see the list of people who already signed up, so they’d know what to expect when they signed up in the next batch. It worked rather well, and it was very flattering to see the first batch of tickets disappear in just over an hour!

6. COMMUNICATION

Keep participants in the loop about:

  • locations
  • accommodation for people out of town
  • if you’re still looking for sponsors
  • unconference specifics: How does the talk suggestion system work? Can they discuss topics online beforehand to get some feedback?

7. FOOD

If you can afford it, you can order food from a catering service. If you don’t have time or money to order food beforehand, you can always get pizza on the day itself.

Whatever you decide, make it clear to participants whether there will be food or not, and who is paying for it.

8. PROGRAMMING

There are several ways to let people make the program:

  • Have participants submit ideas beforehand.
  • Have participants submit ideas beforehand. Organisers create a schedule to be published before the meeting.
  • Have participants write down suggestions at the start of the meeting and place those directly on a blank schedule.
  • Have participants write down suggestions, and let everyone look at all the suggestions before placing them on a schedule. This is the method we used at SciBarCamp/SciBarCamb, in combination with “dotmocracy” on the suggestion sheets to decide which talks were the most popular (and needed the bigger room).

If you’re having participants create the program at the start of the meeting, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. You may end up with more talks than there are time slots, or (worse) you might not get enough suggestions. Have some ideas of your own and/or make sure that some of the people attending are definitely suggesting a talk by talking to them beforehand.

9. THE DAY ITSELF

All that’s left are just lots of little things to keep everything on track, including, but not limited to:

  • Make sure the schedule is easy to find for everyone.
  • Announce venue-specific details.
  • Make sure organisers are identifiable.
  • Have timekeepers in every session to make sure it ends on time for the next group to use the room.

At the end of the day, optionally, collapse in a little pile of exhaustion. You did it!

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1 comment

Cath Ennis April 27, 2011 - 1:18 AM

Wow – that’s a crazy amount of work! I hadn’t even considered sponsorship etc., since all the (much smaller and straightforward) events I’ve organised have been work-related and paid for by work. I hate asking people for money too, and after my mammoth sponsored bike ride fundraising effort last year I vowed never to do it again. Or at least, not for five years or so.

Well done again for pulling it all off!

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