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!

Applicants by Sector

August 30th, 2010

With only two days remaining to apply to THATCamp Bay Area, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a breakdown of our applicants by sector.  These are pretty broad sectors of course, and some people may fit into more than one, but I think it’s useful to break it down.  As we have close to 100 applicants at this point, and only space to accommodate 75, we’ll be looking at sectors as an important factor.

Our three bigges sectors, respectively, are academic, commercial, and library.

Curating or Crowdsourcing Unconferences?

August 12th, 2010

There are a lot of great things about being involved with THATCamp, and I’m super excited about having the opportunity to help organize THATCamp Bay Area October 9-10, 2010.  Not least of those great perks is meeting all kinds of super smart and motivated people who are using their intellect, expertise, and contacts to do something for each other and for the common good.  But there are other aspects which are typical of a growing community or network that require tough decisions that can’t please everyone.

One that we’ve struggled with at THATCamp Bay Area is the question of a curated or crowdsourced gathering, a question very relevant to those in the library, archives, and museum space already!  What I mean by that in this context is whether we should open our rendition of THATCamp to anyone and everyone (crowdsource) and let the chips fall where they may, or should we use an application process to vet invitees to create purposeful cross-disciplinary dynamics (curate)?  I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in both types of unconferences, as have some of the other organizers, and we’ve certainly seen some of the pros and cons of both.  This is something that deserves more discussion amongst the THATCamp community to be sure.

While every regional THATCamp has the ability to organize things their own way, there are several key characteristics (listed on that we wanted to be sure to abide by. Granted, these are not set in stone, and as THATCamp seems to be a growing movement, some of us have gotten together at THATCamps and other places to talk about these kinds of organizing and network weaving questions.  But one of the key elements here that helped us make the decision of curate vs. crowdsource was that THATCamps have no more than 100 participants.  Since there has never been a THATCamp in the Bay Area, 75-100 seemed like a reasonable number to shoot for, and we began the search for a (non-academic, different story) space to accommodate about that many people, and sponsors to support it.  Once Automattic, the people behind, got behind us and offered to host THATCamp Bay Area at their space, we were on.  We figure we can accommodate about 75 people, and we decided that if we got more applicants than that, we’ll need to do some curating.

Now, just over a week and a half into our month long application window, we already have over 75 applicants.  Assuming there will be more, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.  So, to the extent that we have to, we’ll be making decisions based on several factors that are intended to extend the reach of THATCamp and inspire more cross-disciplinary events like it in the Bay Area and beyond.  For the sake of transparency and in the hope that our process can help inform other organizers, these are the things we’ll be taking into consideration as we curate this gathering.

  • Your applications matter.  We are not asking for a lot of information, but we’re trying to make sure that the people that attend have a passion for their work or vocation or hobby and want to share their experience with others as well as learn new things.  You don’t need technical skills or academic credentials.
  • We’re aiming to create cross-disciplinary connections across a wide array of sectors, and so are looking for applicants from as many diverse fields as possible–with not too many from one organization, institution or sector.
  • We’re looking for catalysts to keep this conversation going.  We hope that people will take what they learn from this and share it widely, act on it, build collaborations, pursue ongoing conversations, and include others.  Because we have more people interested than we can facilitate, we have an added responsibility to continue opening the conversation.

Clearly, in future THATCamps in the Bay Area, we’ll need to either plan for more participants, or take a FOOcamp model of having nominations.  It will be worth discussing, and in the meantime, there’s great excitement over the demand!

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