Behind the Scenes Look at Organizing THATCamp Bay Area

October 20th, 2010

From @unthinkingly: “Nap session at #THATcamp led by @lookbackmaps

It took about a week for me to recover/relax/catch-up and normalize after THATCamp Bay Area. But the exhaustion was worth it. I was so happy with how the weekend turned out, and am hopeful that this kind of collaboration will continue to grow in the Bay Area in months and years to come.  I’m extremely grateful to the many generous people worldwide involved in THATCamps, and for their support in helping us pull off this local rendition.

Now that the organizing is behind me, I wanted to share some of the ideas that worked and didn’t work with this, some of the things I learned, and break down the actual costs of a non-university hosted THATCamp, looking at money, time, emotion, and politics.

First of all, some of the things we did that I think really worked.

  • We took it outside. I was insistent that THATCamp Bay Area be held anywhere but a university, and having the Automattic Lounge space donated for our use was a huge boost.  Aside from just being an open and inspirational space, it allowed us to include, but not be limited to “digital humanities;” it gave us a very fresh space to break out of our industry cliques and normal meeting routines; and it provided neutral ground for the various academic and corporate institutions we were drawing participants from.
  • We had a party. To me, the whole weekend was a celebration–of life, of passion, of intellectual pursuit, of hobbies, etc.  But we also had the very fun Dork Shorts element along with some very smart entertainment by Megan and Rick Prelinger together with drinks on Saturday night.  The night ended in fireworks (a total accident by the way!), Scottish country dancing led by Candace Nast, and music curated by Jordan Gray.
  • We did it ourselves. This was a completely volunteer effort.  No one got paid a cent and any time we committed to it was squeezed in amongst our other jobs and projects. We set out folding chairs, brought donuts, had lunch catered by a local grocery store, chipped in to get a keg.  It was a DIY event from the get-go, and like other THATCamps I’ve been to, that constructive atmosphere was very pervasive throughout the weekend.
  • We had widespread support. We had a great core team of volunteers, and we also had a larger organizing committee that volunteered to spread the word, reach out to their respective communities and help solicit sponsorship (thanks!!).  This was the key to our success in bringing in a great group of sponsors and having so many different sectors represented in the applicant pool.
  • We used Open Space. As the principal organizer, I relied heavily on my experience with Open Space Technology and stuck pretty close to the main organizing elements (organizers, I highly recommend checking out this book).  I was careful to open and close with a circle and make clear to participants that a lot of work went in to providing the space, but that it was entirely up to them what to do with it.  The result was fantastic.

By all counts, the weekend was a great success, but it was not without some challenges:

  • We did it ourselves. There was certainly a downside to doing it all ourselves on a volunteer basis without having institutional support: it was exhausting.  Of course, part of the success was due to just how much love and energy we put into this, but I’m not sure that’s a sustainable model–nor is it entirely necessary.  It was the first THATCamp in the Bay Area, so personally, I wanted to set the bar high and put in a lot of extra effort to make sure we started off strong.
  • Sound was a problem. The majority of our space to work with was a big open room, in which we made space for three breakout sessions.  We had a fourth space outside on the patio and a fifth smaller place in a cubby on the way outside.  The good part of this is that we had a very dynamic energy and space in which people could easily drift in and out of sessions.  The down side was that it could get pretty hard to hear or focus on your sessions.  Uh, not to mention Blue Angels and Fleet Week–though that also added to the excitement in a way.
  • Bigger space? I thought we’d be lucky to get 75 applicants, so figured that was plenty of space to plan for.  But we had 110 applicants and could not accommodate everybody.  I think if the space was permitting, 110 people would have certainly been manageable, though a bit more expensive.

Financial Costs

I’ve provided a full accounting of our income and expenses for the event. On the income side, we had 4 presenting sponsors who gave $500 each, and 6 supporting sponsors who gave $200 each (we had two in-kind supporting sponsors, LookBackMaps and Prelinger Library).  I did not include the value of the space, which would be about $3,000, and was generously donated by our hosting sponsor, Automattic Inc.  About 76% of participants who weren’t volunteers or direct sponsors contributed $25.

On the expense side, the major expenses were t-shirts and catering, which included coffee, bagels, pastries, and donuts Saturday and Sunday, and lunch on Saturday.  Catering also included juices, sodas, ice, and lots of fresh fruit (great idea Cornelius!), etc.

We have a surplus of $522.04, which I propose be used to support future THATCamp Bay Area events during the next year that continue to widen the circle of participants (somebody said something about a November 7 event?).

Investment of Time

I’m not sure how accurate this is, because I did it in hindsight, but thought it was worth doing as I got a lot of questions from potential THATCamp organizers about how much time I spent organizing this.  This is just for my hours and doesn’t include time that other folks helped out on, and it’s for what I would consider “billable” hours, not time I spent doing research, bringing THATCamp into various conversations and meetings, or just thinking about it.  I think this is a pretty fair guess though, and should give you a good idea of what kind of work to expect and when to plan for things.  For THATCamp Bay Area, the key dates were June 1, when we decided on space and officially announced the date and venue, applications opening on Aug 1 and closing Sept 1, invites sent out Sept 7, and the event on Oct. 9 & 10.

Emotional Costs

I already mentioned the exhaustion factor.  I love the photo at the top of this post that Chris took of me laid out on the couch on Saturday afternoon. I was so wiped out!  Mainly, by the time Saturday started to come together, I could actually relax and enjoy the gathering, which for me entailed laying low and listening in on the various sessions and conversations (though I was drawn in to a couple of Linked Data sessions).  Of course, after that photo, I got some food and rallied for Saturday evening and had a blast!

Another thing I want to point out that definitely weighed heavily on me and my team was the emotional cost of having to choose who made the first round of participants and who went on the wait list.  Of course, we wanted everyone to come, but that just wasn’t possible.  It was tough for us to have to choose one colleague or another, despite having agreed to our methodology and informing folks of that.  For the most part, applicants were very gracious, and many attendees let us know right away if they couldn’t make it so that we could offer spots to others on the wait list.

Political Risks and Rewards

THATCamp was started by “digital humanists” to create what has become a pretty radical space for open dialogue and conversation, largely within the academic environment (I use the quotes only because I’m still not sure what a digital humanist is).  There has been a very conscious effort to not limit THATCamp to the digital humanities or to the academy, for which I’m very grateful.

But it turns out that it’s no small feat to create a space in which humanists and technologists, from professional to enthusiast, feel welcome.  The best way I could think of to do that was to make sure that we were not in an academic setting, not let any organization be over-represented, and have a diverse enough representation of sectors to prevent a focus on internal bullshit.  The downside: I pissed some people off.  The upside: I heard from a lot of people how excited they were to have a chance to pursue issues from a variety of perspectives, how happy they were to not be bogged down in the politics of their industry (be it digital humanities or the tech sector), and how rewarding it was to explore collaborations with people they would not have otherwise reached out to.

This is not to say that you can’t reach beyond a largely academic audience when having THATCamps at universities, *if* you want to… it just may take a little extra work.


I hope this post is of some help to organizers of future THATCamp or other similar open space style events.  You certainly don’t need to be an expert to pull off an excellent unconference, though I’m sure it gets easier with practice.  I know I had a lot of help from other THATCamp organizers throughout, as well as my fellow organizers, the organizing committee and the participants themselves, who put together one great event.  To sum it up in a word: Thanks!

4 Responses to “Behind the Scenes Look at Organizing THATCamp Bay Area”

  1. Weekend Reading: Congrats to Bowling Green Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 22, 2010 7:01 pm

    […] account of what it took to organize THATCamp Bay Area offers an excellent roadmap for getting different constituencies together to work on common problems: This was a completely […]

  2. Weekend Reading: Happy Halloween Edition - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 29, 2010 7:02 pm

    […] as raised by George’s and my Educause post, as well as Jon Voss’s account of organizing THATCamp Bay Area, will find Audrey Watters’s “Thoughts on THATCamp from an Academic Industry […]

  3. Roy Tennant on November 17, 2010 6:11 am

    Jon, as an eager participant and someone who arranged a sponsorship, I have to say that your management of the event was pretty much flawless. I loved the space, everyone seemed to be having a really great time, the food was great, the diversity of participants was a real strong suit, the Saturday night event was totally cool — really it was an exceptional time. Also, I appreciate your total explication of what it took to put this on and your complete financial transparency. I look forward to other events (in planning already) that you may foster.

  4. Jon Voss on November 17, 2010 9:58 pm

    Thanks Roy!

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