The Conference Issue

By Adena Schutzberg

In the past three weeks I attended two GIS conferences (one hosted by Directions Magazine) and one planning meeting for an upcoming conference.I've never been one to shy away from critiquing the events I attend and hope I bring some of what I've learned to the conferences in which I participate.I wanted to share some ideas, thoughts and observations on "conferencing" in 2005.

BYOL. One idea I ran into recently, for the first time, was a hands-on session that was BYOL (bring your own laptop).The attendees powered up their machines, installed the software and data and "followed along" (or not) as the workshop presenter introduced the package.Those without laptops (about half in this case) either looked over their neighbor's shoulder or watched the presenter's machine projected at the front of the room.It worked great - there were no glitches to speak of and because the software provided was an evaluation version, attendees and the vendor didn't have to worry about licensing or giving back the software.The bottom line: This sort of session will work great for some workshops and save organizers time, money and headaches.I'd offer the software vendor gets more out of this sort of session that just a "show and tell."

Planning Ahead.What can be more difficult than planning for a conference in six months or a year? What will be the hot topic then? What will be "old hat" by then? Looking into the future like that is always difficult and organizers must build in some level of flexibility just in case something "new" pops up.I recall how so many conferences reorganized themselves with homeland security tracks just after 9/11. While it was vital to get the stories out far and wide, I for one overdosed on the topic by spring of 2002.

The Plenar(ies). How many times during the course of an event should all of the participants come together? Some conferences have a single track - everyone is always together.NSGIC works that way and I for one like it as it's easier for me to cover the event.That is, it's harder to miss something than when there are tracks from which to choose.It also creates a sense of community that might not otherwise exist.Other events bring everyone together once at the beginning of the event and once at the end.ESRI's User Conference has everyone together for the first (sometimes grueling) day and then again for a much smaller wrap-up on the last day.The size of that event makes this a necessity of sorts, but it also forces organizers to be sure that "everything everyone needs to know" gets into that first day.And, to ESRI's credit, a huge percentage of people stay put all day.Other events have several "plenaries" including keynotes ("If you have more than one keynote," someone recently asked me, "can it really be called a keynote?") or panels.The trick there is for organizers to carefully decide what should be "required attendance" by all attendees.

Networking. The value of most conferences, I believe, is in networking - hooking up with people who may (now or later) prove useful to you.Some conferences try very hard to get people in the same areas to connect by hosting lunch tables for "birds of a feather" or coding name badges with different colored stickers.Others do nothing more complicated than offering coffee and small tables for intimate chats or demos.The good news is that I don't believe I've attended a conference where networking didn't occur, no matter what the organizers planned. The only complaint I've ever heard: "there was not enough time for networking."

Coverage. I've been writing about GIS conferences regularly for nearly five years.I've been reading other people's writings on GIS and other events for far longer.I'd classify the coverage into four broad categories: "here's everything (some or all of) the people presenting said;" "here's what I thought about what was said;" "here's what I thought was interesting/valuable;" or some mix.I've tended towards the former, hoping for a "you are there" sort of coverage.(That, I've learned, means that my coverage sometimes ends up as part of "trip reports" from attendees to their bosses after they return from the same event.I don't mind that; some event organizers actually offer automated systems for creating trip reports!) Is that "cover everything" model the most valuable? I know it means the reader has to plow through the coverage (just as I do!) to pick out the nuggets relevant to them.On the other hand, it acknowledges that I can't be sure I'll offer the nugget a particular reader needs, if I just select what I consider the "interesting" bits.So I put it to you readers: What the most valuable way my colleagues and I can cover conferences?

Published Sunday, May 15th, 2005

Written by Adena Schutzberg



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