Letter from the Low Lands: One Step Beyond Combining Conferences

June 17, 2010

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The recent report in Directions Magazine on the GITA conference and the responses by readers made me realize that in the Netherlands we have gone one step beyond combining conferences: we've combined professional societies. In 2003, just before I joined the board, seven societies with geo-information as their common interest combined to form one, Geo-Informatie Nederland. This has not been an "all success story," but we have seen more benefits than disadvantages so far. Challenges are abundant as well.

Combining conferences From what I read about the GITA conference, it indeed wasn't "my father's GIS conference" since I recall incredible crowds in the past. I would argue that geography also plays a role in determining who attends a conference. In the Netherlands, which is just over one-third the size of the state of Indiana, traveling to and from a conference is easily accomplished with public transportation, especially when that conference is centrally located. Alternative ways of meeting (e.g. using Internet) don't play that much of a role in the Netherlands yet.

I believe the purpose of professional conferences is to increase your knowledge of what is new, to meet with others who have gone that path before and to share what you have learned once you get back home. One great advantage of one professional society is one conference. Last year, Geo-Informatie Nederland changed its business model for organizing events: We still determine the content of the event, but we basically gave a "license to organize" to a commercial organization. It keeps our risks low and allows us to benefit from the skills of a professional event organizer. With over 2,600 participants last year, this model certainly has worked out for us so far. As for the German INTERGEO model, I would describe that as one society's conference where success is being shared with the other professional societies. Their model seems to work.

The role of a professional organization: challenges ahead
Combining conferences has proven to be a good first step in the Netherlands, but there are still a few trends we need to address. What people expect from a professional society changes over time. Therefore, the benefits of joining a professional society are not as obvious as they used to be. And organizing events is a "free market."

Professional societies have been around for a while, but like many organizations, they face challenges. Last year our society launched a multi-year plan to address these challenges. I would argue that the worldwide landscape of events is changing, and that professional societies need to change with it. Professional development is certainly a key objective of a professional society, but there is no monopoly on that subject. Companies informing their user communities are different from event organizers, which move into the neutral space that used to be exclusively owned by a professional society. Dealing with this certainly presents a challenge. Do these new ventures broaden our field or are they just "free riders" on what was built up by others (a valid business model, but not very sustainable for our sector)?

For professional societies, it may be a challenge to broaden attention to new fields of geo-information technology users. They sometimes want "their own thing" and attract their own interest groups. I can relate to the FOSS4G and Where2.0 remarks made by readers in the GITA article discussion.

Point of view
In my opinion, the challenges professional societies are facing are no different from other organizations:
  1. Stay relevant in the view of the members and the (geo)society.
  2. Deliver value for the membership fee.
  3. Aim to make members recommend attending your conference to a friend.
As for geo conferences without many attendees, I am a bit conflicted about those as well. I like the smaller meetings (I define 50 as small), but at the major events (e.g. the ESRI User Conference or INTERGEO) the possibility to meet up in small groups also exists. The "business case" to go there is sometimes just a simple calculation. It would take me one month to meet with all the people I can meet with there in just a couple of hours or days. And honestly, feeling part of that bigger crowd is something the Internet cannot provide to me.

Maybe we can go beyond one national professional society one day; assuming there is a large overlap in interest between our international counterparts, maybe one international professional society will arise one day?

So let it be known... on Wednesday, November 10th we are organizing a Geo-Informatie Nederland Symposium. We are counting on the support of our members and companies in the GeoBusiness sector to make this event happen!

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