Learning patterns/Five tips for preparing a great conference
What problem does this solve?
Physical conferences are costly and carbon-intensive, and consume a lot of organisers' and participants' time. They might provide a nice break for Wikimedians who like travel and physical events, but most Wikimedian conferences (and probably most conferences everywhere) end up having little or no impact on the stakeholders. For us, the ultimate stakeholders are the readers of WMF sites.
Most Wikimedian conference planners focus on the logistics of running the conference; but the hardest parts are not during the event—they're before and after it. How can you design a conference that is likely to have a significant impact on the movement? All of these tips are relevant to the smaller Wikimedia-movement conference plans for which PEG funding is applied; some of these tips are relevant to the existing big conferences (Wikimania and the annual affiliates' conference).
What are the five tips?
One: identify the problems and opportunities
Start early and think of what the ideal outcomes might be: what type of knowledge would be conveyed to which participants, what type of personal and professional networking could arise from the event, and what types of decision-making and strategic development could occur at the conference? Assemble your core team and discuss the ideal outcomes with them. Don't just identify problems and opportunities: try to develop angles, approaches, strategies, logistics that can be put to the conference for input from your participants.
Always keep in mind that the ultimate impact should be felt on WMF sites. Achieving that is the reason for holding a conference.
Two: avoid brainstorming sessions
Brainstorming is where you get a group of people together in the hope that they'll spontaneously come up with clever ideas. But this is based on an idealised version of reality; it rarely produces more than disjointed and raw ethernet notes and a forest of coloured stickers on a whiteboard—all headings for barely formed good intentions, forgotten as people leave. Good intentions need detailed planning and discussion if they're ever to get off the ground.
Three: conduct preparatory contact online
This is critical to making your conference impactful. The WMF's Asaf Bartov has publicly stated that conferences should be the culmination of discussions, not the start of them. Grantmaking staff are highly skilled in assisting conference organisers. Please contact them early in your planning process. If they think your conference is likely to be valuable, they'll encourage regular contact.
Be ambitious. It's hard work developing a good basis for a conference. With your core team, do the initial brainstorming at an early stage by reaching out to likely participants—onwiki, by email, by skype, by phone. Everyone—you and all of the participants—should already know what at least some of the specific problems and opportunities might be, even if some are mere conjecture or "what-ifs". This is the key to theming and structuring the conference sessions, so that when people arrive and meet each other, they already know about specific ideas that will be discussed.
Let's take a hypothetical east African conference on how to increase diversity. Send out to possible participants and any relevant affiliates some specific proposals and questions. This will already require your core team to conduct some online and other research, possibly with the support and encouragement of the WMF grantmaking staff.
Vague: We're holding this conference and do you have any ideas about women's participation as editors?
Better: We plan to form specific proposals now, so that we can shape strategies for future action when we meet in Kampala. Please help us to improve these ideas before we meet.
Vague: Do you have any ideas for increasing women's participation on WMF sites in your country?
Better: We know that internet access is more restricted for women than for men in the regional areas of countries A and B, and that the lack of women's ownership and control of their own mobile devices is a key inhibitor. [More information.] One idea for increasing women's participation on [language] WP is to form women's editing groups in towns and villages with scheduled access to mobile devices that we might fund, using the example of Unicefs' X program for small banking loans as a model. [More information included.] This would require visits by Wikimedians to set up and monitor schemes, and to train local women in editing. [More information included.] Please (i) tell us whether you think this is a viable idea; (ii) suggest areas that would be easiest to start this scheme with (literacy, keyboard skills, and would be an advantage); (iii) suggest supportive senior people in one or two towns; people in charge of local schools; mobile phone company officials who might be sympathetic). Please let us know of any other ideas you'd like to discuss at the conference.
At the same time, be flexible and adapt during both your preparatory dialogues and during the conference: the best sessions are where what is "on the table" is discussed, criticised, improved, or dismissed; but you also hope that entirely new ideas will come up, stimulated by the specific discussions. Be adaptable, be flexible; but don't present sessions with a blank sheet and expect them to have an impact.
Four: know your participants
Select them carefully. Providing scholarships for two people from each country in Africa, for example, may not capture the key people in relation to active communities and WMF websites—and critically, might not give you most likely people to help achieve your goals. What kind of background, knowledge, skills, and motivations do you need to achieve impact? Do you need to know how big the actual and potential Wikimedia communities are that each participant might represent? Do you want to attract participants who will perform significant voluntary work after the conference? Would there be benefit in inviting non-Wikimedians to the conference (GLAM, telcos, local officials whose knowledge and power would be important)? Skype audio or phone contact before the conference is often a great advantage.
Make it easy for your participants to know each other. Preparing them with an "infopack", including a list of participants, their interests, skills, knowledge, and location will encourage networking and make it more likely that relationships of trust will develop during the conference—one of the advantages of physical meetups over online communications. In print, provide only so much detail as privacy allows; but bear in mind that the investment is for people to get together and meet each other, so onwiki anonymity is no longer the presumption. Name tags are often helpful. Conferences essentially work through social and interpersonal interaction. If there's an introductory gathering, there's nothing better than having organisers mingle and introduce people to each other. At the end, make sure people have swapped contact details if they've agreed to collaborate on conference outcomes.
Five: ensure effective documentation and action
- Before: At least a month before the conference, establish a fairly complete schedule of events and sessions, with abstracts. Put it onwiki and send email reminders to your participants.
- During: Document each session, focusing on the outcomes, the decisions, who has agreed to do what. Publish this onwiki or by accessible etherpad. Keep in contact with people who have agreed to volunteer for post-conference strategies.
- After: The decisions and strategic action that come out of an effective conference should be documented in the months and years after the event. More than one person should accept responsibility for documentation and action on the ground in case an assigned person becomes unavailable over time. Liaison with affiliate groups and organisations can ensure that more people can be involved in conference-outcome activities.
- At any time: Write a draft press release for your local news outlets, and seek the WMF's assistance in shaping it.
- Be clear about which language websites you're aiming to improve, and which language the conference will be conducted in.
- Run sessions with fairly strict timing, and decide on the mode of interaction for each: presentation then Q&A, two-way throughout, facilitation (often a good idea)?
- "Roundtables" need pre-announced structure and aims, with expectations of summaries of discussion and formulations for action, and strong mediation.
- Try to organise good connectivity for your conference venue.
- Don't launch a PEG application until you've included a convincing level of detail in your draft proposal; launch the proposal at least six weeks before the date you'd want to start spending funds. It's usually helpful to seek WMF grantmaking staff review of your proposal beforehand.
- Organising a wikicamp for winners in an international wiki-contest. At such an event, winners from many places in the wider region are gathered. The intention of the event, apart from intercultural and interpersonal exchange, is to bring participants closer together and encourage them to develop interests in other countries, resulting in new articles about them on their wikis. They built personal relations, had sessions about contributing to projects and had a chance to present something of interest from each of their native cultures, thus prompting further interest in wikiprojects and other larger co-operations that focus on particular countries and cultures on each other's language projects.
- This is a great set of guidelines for planning a conference. I especially like the examples of how to ask preparatory questions online to encourage useful discussions. KHarold (WMF) (talk) 21:45, 16 September 2015 (UTC)
- Well thought-out and rather systematic. B. Jankuloski (talk) 15:25, 18 September 2015 (UTC)