Thinking about leadership – what values are key for a good leader?

Last week, I attended the Mindful Leadership Summit which was an interesting few days of talks and workshops about what it means to be a leader today. Topics discussed ranged from the challenges of leadership in startup scenarios, to the specific issues facing women. There were also sessions on local politics, inclusion and presence under pressure.

In addition to the main conference, I also attended a one-day workshop, “Finding the Space to Lead” – hosted by Janice Marturano, author of a book of the same name. During the various workshop exercises, we considered which characteristics define good leadership, converging on a definition of what makes a good leader (also in Janice’s book):

Leaders are able to:

  1. Connect – to themselves, to others, to the wider community
  2. Skilfully initiate or guide change by:

being responsive

being able to hold ambiguity

being collaborative

being respectful

being creative

It struck me that not only are these good leadership skills, but they’re also the skills of good community managers.

In the workshop, it was also emphasised that these two core skills are very deliberately in the order listed – it’s important to connect first before trying to implement change. Which means listening, learning and understanding the people and environment in which you’re working, before precociously heading for a prescribed solution.

What do you think? Are there any skills missing here – or any that often go unrecognised or are harder to develop?

Something wicked this way comes (repost)

Note: This post was originally published on the Nobel Week Dialogue blog in December 2013. I’m re-posting it here as an archive copy. It discusses the options for addressing particularly complex problems – such as the global energy challenge, which was the theme of last year’s Nobel Week Dialogue event. 

If you’re anything like me, pondering how we find workable solutions to complex issues can often result in feeling deflated, or worse, defeated. Big challenges such as tackling climate change or designing healthcare policies for new pandemics require policy makers to juggle seemingly impossible combinations of multiple factors. What’s the current state of our scientific knowledge and where should research focus in order to build on that? What technologies do we need to develop to benefit from that knowledge and translate it into useful tools? How do we make and debate policy decisions using the current best evidence? And how do we communicate with non-experts so they understand the changes that may be required while still recognizing the questions that still need resolving? It’s a challenging number of things to address all at once.

At the UK Conference for Science Journalism in 2012 I learned from keynote speaker, Jay Rosen, that there’s a term for these particularly difficult challenges: wicked problems. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber originally coined the phrase in 1973 when discussing the difficulties of social policy planning. They came up with a list of ten characteristics that define a wicked problem, which are well described here (an abridged version follows).

  1. Wicked problems have no definitive formulation.
  2. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to measure or claim success with wicked problems because they bleed into one another.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems can be only good or bad, not true or false…approaches to wicked problems should be tractable ways to improve a situation rather than solve it.
  4. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem…Teams that approach wicked problems must literally make things up as they go along.
  5. There is always more than one explanation for a wicked problem.
  6. Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem.
  7. No mitigation strategy for a wicked problem has a definitive scientific test because humans invented wicked problems and science exists to understand natural phenomena.
  8. Offering a “solution” to a wicked problem frequently is a “one shot” design effort because a significant intervention changes the design space enough to minimize the ability for trial and error.
  9. Every wicked problem is unique.
  10. Designers attempting to address a wicked problem must be fully responsible for their actions

Some of the factors that make wicked problems so difficult to address include: i) gaps or contradictions in our understanding; ii) the sheer number of different people affected by the problem and the diversity of opinions that they might bring to the discussion; iii) the cost of implementing a possible solution; and iv) the fact that the problem may not exist in isolation, but relates to other problems.

So is the future of energy a wicked problem? As we’ve seen from earlier posts on this blog, there’s certainly plenty there that resonates with the definitions above. There’s the link between energy use and climate change, a problem with wickedness of its own. There’s the question of what to do in the short term versus the long term, and then challenges of the costs and public perceptions of individual possible solutions, such as nuclear power. There are also questions of how we can improve current technologies.

Do we have any clues as to how we might start addressing the “wickedness”? A 2000 paper by Nancy Roberts proposed that there are three different strategies for discussing wicked problems: authoritative, competitive and collaborative. A solely authoritative approach seems to deny the possibility of fresh perspectives. A competitive approach may push on the accelerator to find solutions, but it can push away opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations and turn solution-finding into a sales and marketing exercise. Given the complexities of the questions that need resolution as well as increasing public access to information and online channels with which to discuss it, is a collaborative solution is the only realistic option?

It’s worth stressing that, while it may be idealistic, collaboration is hard – and as Roberts states: “Getting the ‘whole system in the room’ has its challenges…Figuring out what the system is, who the stakeholders are and how to select them, how many can be accommodated under one roof, what the agenda will be, and how to facilitate interactions all have been mentioned elsewhere as major issues to consider.”

Furthermore, this kind of collaborative thinking may require new communication skills that we’re not used to applying: “Skills of collaboration are limited, too, especially among people who work in a traditional bureaucracy with a strong hierarchy that limits participation and team-based approaches to problem solving and decision making. Collaboration requires practice; it is a learned skill. If members do not have these skills, they need to acquire them and that takes additional time and resources.”

Perhaps high profile events such as the Nobel Week Dialogue are a good way of airing current thinking in a public manner and inviting further conversations. But it will still require further effort to turn those conversations into collaborative solutions.

From interested, to invested to impactful – what’s needed to sustain a movement?

Last Wednesday, I attended the London satellite event for OpenCon, an event that took place in DC earlier in November and which brought together an international group of open advocates to discuss progress to date, and to consider how the movement might be strengthened (See blog posts by Ross Mounce and Jon Tennant for more about the DC event).

There’s certainly been an increasing mention of the importance of community recently (e.g. Cameron Neylon’s Open Access session at the wikimania conference –  and related blog post – as well as Peter Murray Rust’s closing slides on Wednesday). But it was a comment on Wednesday by Joe MacArthur of the Open Access Button that really helped me to frame where it fits. Joe asked, “how do we get from interested to invested to impactful [as a movement]?” Which prompted me to doodle the following:

From interested to invested to impactful - how do we increase momentum in the Open community? Image credit: author's own.

From interested to invested to impactful – how do we increase momentum in the Open community? Image credit: author’s own.


Interested – In order to invite more people to become involved with the open movement, we need to raise awareness of its benefits via case studies, ambassadors, advocacy projects and more. Peter Murray-Rust argues that we need more slogans, better “marketing”. Others have decided to write, and talk about their decisions about where to publish or for which organisations to do peer review. It’s these activities that may persuade others to ask questions and show interest in learning more. And it’s why I believe that it’s important to choose language and actions that are positive, open for deliberation, and don’t simply reinforce an echo chamber.

Invested – Moving from being interested in something to being invested in it requires an emotional commitment, and this where community plays a big part. I’ve spoken often of how a community is a group of people with shared interests, and that when you communicate well with the other people that you’ve come into contact with, you feel like you belong.  Belonging means you’ll go the extra mile to get things done; to work with people you like to strive towards goals that you share. This is where events like OpenCon and the OpenKnowledge Festival are important for strengthening the existing community. They help to form new connections among community members who’ve not yet met, they strengthen friendships among those who already know each other, and they help to convert interested attendees into future, active members.

However, a less rallying cry needs to be underlined here too: Peter Murray-Rust reminded everyone in the conclusion to his talk on Wednesday that the goal of building a community invested in an open future is not to sacrifice martyrs for a cause. Everyone has his/her own commitments, responsibilities and career concerns. And so the amount of caution to show is something that individuals need to make a personal judgment about – not to feel peer pressured into.

Impactful – So what are the next steps to build upon that thriving sense of community? What is needed to make an impact? This is where infrastructure starts to really matter. By infrastructure, I’m referring to things that support the growth of the community and its goals (rather than solutions that tackle the implementation of open methodologies per se). These may include:

i) Clear communication channels – a webpage, wiki, blog, mailing list, online group or whatever solutions work – so that everyone in the open community can find out what’s going on and coordinate new activities in such a way that knowledge of how to do so is shared. If a friend or colleague asked how they could find out more about the open community and get involved, where would you point them so that they could find out more?

Figured out a successful format for a meetup? Share it with the community! Figured out the 10 most common questions people always ask you about Open Access? Create a freely available doc/wiki page that anyone can reuse and put it somewhere easy to find. One of the outputs that came out of Wednesday’s event was the creation of a collaborative open glossary of terms and resources.

This is also why live-streaming (and archiving) of sessions from meetings matters, as well as creating Storifys of tweets of important discussions, or blogging ideas. Remember what it’s like to be the one who can’t make it and be generous with your communications. These records of discussions and events also serve to feed back into the beginning of this three-tier process – to open up the conversations and enable more people to show interest in them.

ii) Specific goals – As a community becomes a bit more structured, then individual members may set some more specific goals. One of the most useful sessions for me at Wednesday’s event was when we worked in small groups to envisage what an Open Access publishing future might look like. It helped us to identify the current economic, technological and social barriers, and to start breaking them down into smaller challenges to address.

Setting goals also provides opportunities to celebrate when they’re reached, or to do some reflecting when they end up being more difficult than anticipated. Without benchmarks, it’s not always easy know whether you’ve made an impact.

iii) Extended reach – Finally, good infrastructure let’s you extend your reach. Got a model for a meetup in the US? Now it can be replicated in Australia or the UK. Ran a campaign in the UK? How about trying something similar in the US? Extended reach once again feeds back to the beginning of this process and helps more people to find out about the open movement.

Big thank you to Joe for the inspirational phrase, and also to Jon Tennant who remixed my doodles into the much prettier diagram shown below.

Interested to invested to impactful - remixed notes Image credit: Jon Tennant.

Interested to invested to impactful – remixed notes Image credit: Jon Tennant.



The road is long: On the importance of infrastructure – from scholarly comms to sci comm

On Monday, I tuned in via live-stream to an interesting keynote by Geoff Bilder, Director of Strategic Initiatives at CrossRef, who talked about the importance of scholarly cyber-infrastructure (video archive here). Bilder was speaking at Shaking it up – a one day workshop in Boston to discuss “the changing state of the research ecosystem”.

Bilder started by lamenting the lack of importance placed on infrastructure, which is often seen as “unsexy” and goes unnoticed.

It can also be seen as an afterthought in many projects, or regarded as outside of the project’s scope:

Bilder then proceeded to consider the challenges of implementing centralised infrastructure, specifically mentioning issues of trust:

Wishlist of requirements for scholarly web infrastructure

So what would be the ideal founding principles of new infrastructure? Bilder outlined the following:

1) It should transcend disciplinary silos, geography, institutions

2) There should be non-discriminatory membership of the organisation.

3) The organisation should be non-lobbying – individual members can lobby, but don’t let organisation become involved with things that may become “mission creep”.

4) The organisation should be financially sustainable – and preferably create a surplus.

5) The organisation should make money from providing services not data.

6) And finally, as built-in insurance against the organisation “going evil”, the software used should be open source and information deposited as open data so that the entire system could be reproduced elsewhere, if necessary.

From scholarly comms to a science of scicomm

While this event was clearly focused on the scholarly web i.e. sharing academic research data, infrastructure is also something that’s been mentioned with respect to science communication more broadly. Specifically, Bilder’s talk brought to mind a post by Brooke Smith of COMPASS, who earlier this year argued that we need to construct “a metro for science communication“. More recently, Alice Bell has also underlined the need for science communication infrastructure.

So how relevant is Bilder’s list to the scicomm infrastructure discussions? In terms of transcending silos, there have been various conversations about sharing knowledge from different disciplines such as sociology, marketing and the digital humanities. This information exchange has been loosely termed “the science of science communication” and formed the theme for a couple of Sackler symposia held in Washington DC in 2012 and 2013. However, there’s no centralised infrastructure to facilitate that kind of information exchange on an ongoing basis nor, as far as I know, a firm set of new collaborations formed as a result of those meetings.

Have we even reached the point of widely acknowledging that such infrastructure is necessary? Or are we better off relying on smaller personal networks to seed the adoption of new norms via an ongoing process of “refining our craft” – as Dan Kahan outlined recently, using journalism as a specific example.

If creating infrastructure to support the science of science communication is a goal, perhaps it would be most realistic to start by creating a simple, (mostly online) meeting place where people from these different fields can exchange ideas and form new connections, gradually testing out the benefits of working together (rather as Liz Neeley outlines in the latter half of her post here). Maybe then we can scale to considering case studies of successful projects that might be replicated elsewhere in similar scenarios, and then move towards building a larger set of best practice resources. Something more akin to the “applied science of science communication” that John Timmer discussed last yearwhere we are eventually able to translate tested ideas into standard practice.

(Of course, this skips some of the other items on Bilder’s list – such as membership questions and funding models –  things that others have already been pondering).



Event formats: List of science tweetups

When I was putting together my post on networking formats – which includes tweetups – I asked twitter for an update about which science tweetups currently exist around the world. Given there are now so many of them, I thought they deserved their own list. Happy to add or correct anything I’ve missed.

Note: tweetups are spontaneously organised by scientists and science communicators who want to meet up informally with others. There aren’t usually presentations or any set programme. Everyone’s welcome to attend – just show up and say hello!

If you don’t see one for your city, starting one is as easy as creating the new hashtag (city+scitweetup) and tweeting to see if anyone else is interested. Likewise, if there hasn’t been an event in your town for a while, why not contact the organisers below and offer to help organise one?




 Other science tweetups

All together now: Event formats for networking

In the first post in this series on event formats, I talked about discussion sessions, and in the second post I moved on to consider more hands-on sessions including workshops and unconferences. Next, I want to think about the various opportunities for networking – either as standalone events or as activities scheduled within a conference or other meeting.

One of the most valuable things about meeting face-to-face is that it gives some real world context to friendships and collaborations that may have started online. Events can also be a much faster way of taking a shared ideas or mutual interest and turning it into a useful exchange of information, a new project or an increased motivation for staying in touch in the future.

i) Making space for socialising

What is it?  The first “format” that I want to mention is really simple: don’t pack your conference or event schedule so tightly that there’s no time for the attendees to interact with one another. Make sure coffee breaks and lunchtimes are long enough that’s there’s plenty of time for everyone to recaffeinate, eat, visit the toilets *and* have some conversations.

Knowing how long to allow can include factoring in how many locations food and drink will be provided at, and how many bathrooms there are –  and therefore how likely there are to be queues! As a general rule, a coffee break should be half an hour, and lunch at least an hour, preferably 90 minutes.

These periods of “unstructured socialising” are particularly useful at large, international meetings where many attendees will have a list of contacts that they want to say a quick hello to during the course of the event. This isn’t intended to replace more organised opportunities to make new connections or ask questions of the speakers, but most people will appreciate some free moments to do their own thing.

Examples:  Coffee breaks, lunch breaks, pre- or post-conference dinners.  At the AAAS annual meeting, there’s a different “unstructured socialising” event or two each evening, including a social media soirree and a science writers’ party.

Networking - it's a piece of cake! Image credit: author's own

Networking – it’s a piece of cake! Image credit: author’s own

Tips/Ideas: As an event organiser, make sure that you’ve clearly displayed when the main conference sessions will resume – or have a bell, loudspeaker or other way of indicating that a coffee or lunch break is coming to an end approximately 5 minutes before you need everyone to be back in their seats. No one likes to suddenly cut off an interesting conversation because they weren’t keeping an eye on the time!

As an attendee, note that sometimes social events can be organised spontaneously, so it can be good idea to keep an eye on the conference hashtag in case a pub or dinner venue is suggested towards the end of the day.

Potential problems/other considerations: Not everyone enjoys the buzz of a room full of caffeinated people excitedly talking with one another – or maybe that space is just too noisy for a quick interview or first time meeting. If possible, choose a venue with multiple open spaces, including an outdoor area, which will will allow attendees to find somewhere to chat where they’re most comfortable.

ii) Tweetups

What is it? A tweetup is when a group of people – some of whom know each other on Twitter – decide to meet up in a pub for an informal evening of hanging out in person and getting to know new people. There’s rarely any kind of schedule other than a start time, and you don’t have to be on Twitter to join in (Indeed some of the more regular groups have crossed the streams and now have Facebook pages for the tweetups!).

Examples: For those interested in meeting scientists and science communicators, there are now scitweetups in many cities. At various points, I’ve been involved with organising ones in London (#ukscitweetup), Cambridge (#camscitweetup), NYC (#NYCscitweetup) and DC (#DCscitweetup). Separate list for all of the science tweetups, their organisers and any Facebook pages can be found here

One of the early #ukscitweetups where we went to a hover craft making competition... (I think! It was definitely science-themed) Photo credit: author's own

One of the early #ukscitweetups where we went to a hover craft making competition… (I think this was a tweetup – it was definitely a science-themed pub meetup!) Photo credit: author’s own

Tips/Ideas: Regular (i.e. once a month) meetings can help to build interest in tweetups, and having more than one organiser means that things don’t grind to a halt if someone is away. It’s usually a good idea to book a table in the bar that you’re going to – many will offer a drinks discount if you explain that you’re running a regular event. As tweetups are occasions to meet new people, make sure that you’re ready to include any first-timers – both online if there are queries about what the event is, *and* when they show up in person.  And if anything happens on the night like needing to move rooms or venue, don’t forget to tweet on the hashtag so that any latecomers know where to find you! 

Potential problems/other considerations:  While tweetups are meant to be informal get-togethers, sometimes it can make sense to piggy-back with a one-off local event such as a science festival to create the opportunity to involve new people. Likewise, if meeting in the same pub each month starts to feel a bit stale, you can try occasional special activities. The London scitweetup has gone ice-skating and tried wine-tasting, for example. Some tweetups that I’ve attended have included very brief “round-the-table” introductions at the beginning of the night to help everyone get to know one another. Other organisers of the events make pens and stickers available for anyone who wants to create a name badge. 

 iii) Ice-breaker activities

What is it?  Some less formal conferences may include ice-breaker activities on the first evening of the event – or during the initial welcome session – as a warm-up for attendees. These are typically a short (10 minutes or so) task that requires probable strangers to interact and begin talking to each other.

Examples: For both years of SciBarCamb we created name badges that required attendees to find others wearing badges with words/images that matched their own. Eva describes the game that we used in the second year here. The name badges at this year’s ScienceOnline conference were perspex jigsaw pieces that required attendees to find 7 other people with complementary shapes to complete a group. 

Finding your perfect match(es) – networked name badges at this year’s ScienceOnline conference. Image credit: author’s own.

Tips/Ideas: Set some time aside for any ice-breaker tasks at the beginning of the event, but don’t make them too complex to explain, embarrassing for participants or too difficult to complete  – the idea is to get people talking to each other, not to create extra stress for the organisers and/or attendees!

Potential problems/other considerations: There will always be no-shows and latecomers at any event, so try to build some redundancy into activities to ensure that they work, even if some people are missing. Be mindful that most people will be attending an event in a professional capacity so any ice-breakers should be appropriate for the dress – and social – code of the event.

iv) Speed-dating – including facilitated matching

What is it?  Speed-dating can involve various types of facilitation, but in its basic form consists of multiple pairings of two people for only a short amount of time, during which they can exchange intros and decide whether they want to continue the conversations once the official “matching” is finished. It’s a good way to meet a large number of people in a short space of time, specifically with the intention of determining if you have enough in common to make a deeper connection. It also means you don’t end up running out of conversation and feeling awkward about how to move on. 

Tips/Ideas:  Members of the Csikász-Nagy lab in Cambridge have created a speed dating algorithm that helps to pair conference attendees together depending on who they already know on the list of attendees, and who they’d like to work with in the future. More details here.

Potential problems/other considerations: There are various options for hosting a speed-dating session – it could take place during a lunch break or dedicated networking session, and you may want to use a lobby area to allow enough space for all the moving around. Another option is to set up furniture (a couple of chairs at a small table for each pairing) and have someone in the role of host to signal when it’s time for each couple to move on to their next partner at an adjacent table. 

v) Interactive business cards 

What is it?  There are now various online tools that can also be used to aid networking at events. Brian Kelly has written about Twitter as an interactive business card and here I want to mention the Blendology badges that we used at SpotOn London 2013. Blendology tap badges allow the conference organisers to pre-load (with the attendees’ consent) each name badge with the name, twitter handle and email address of its owner (or any other info they wish to share, including links to social networking profiles on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn).

When two attendees tap their badges together, their details are exchanged and a time stamp created. After the event, each attendee can download their own timeline of interactions as well as exporting the new contact details that they’re collected to their online address book. See the Storify I made about the badges at #Solo13. 

Tap badges

Tap to connect – Blendology badges at SpotOn London 2013. Image credit: Jason Wen.


Potential problems/other considerations:  Using these badges responsibly requires the consent of the attendees for their data to be pre-loaded to the badges, as described. However, if everyone opts to take part, it’s a powerful tool, not just for attendees to see actual data about how sociable they were and who they interacted with (See Eva Amsen’s blog post about her own data), but also for organisers to analyse whether the event met their networking expectations e.g. by encouraging scientists to talk with startup funders, or pairing technologists with communicators. 

All together now: Event formats for more practical sessions

I recently shared some thoughts on formats for discussion sessions at conferences and other events.

I now want to move on to consider “hands-on” styles of sessions and events, where the emphasis is on encouraging the participants to do something, rather than sit back and listen/check their email/catch up on sleep.

Again, please share your own experiences in the comments – it would be great to create a list of good examples.

i) Unconferences

What is it? The “unconference” format has become very popular over the past few years, especially in community-driven circles, where giving attendees a chance to shape the programme and discussions is a key part of the experience at the event. Unconferences typically also result in lower registration fees and less “production” of the event (i.e. simple food, little/no signage, and only basic A/V requirements).

You may see the term “unconference” being used fairly liberally these days, but my interpretation of it is that the event has no programme set in advance. A broad topic, date and venue is announced, and signups may take place, but the actual schedule is decided on the evening before the event in the pub (or equivalent).  This involves various combinations of post-its, white boards, and encouragement from the organisers, resulting in a programme for the event by the end of the evening. Everyone then turns up the following day to carry this out. Some speakers may bring along talks they’ve used elsewhere, but generally these events work best with a more spontaneous approach. 

Examples: SciFoo Camp, co-organised by O’Reilly and Macmillan’s Timo Hannay et al., is one of the more geeky unconferences. It’s an invite-only event that aims to bring together interesting thinkers in science and tech. I’ve co-organised two SciBarCambs (a Cambridge, UK-based science bar camp). It’s a one day event, plus an evening in the pub beforehand to put together the programme. It involves a mix of talks, demos, and debates with some socialising (dinner and more discussions) afterwards. Martin Fenner has recently shared his thoughts about unconferences – which the SpotOn London conference is adopting as the format for the 2nd of the two days of the event this year.

SciBarCamb - taking a break between sessions. Photo credit: author's own.

SciBarCamb – taking a break between sessions. Photo credit: author’s own.


Suitable for: Great for community participation as the emphasis is in the hands of the attendees. Also good for creating unexpected connections where people with similar interests end up running a session together. Might be an appropriate option if you have a very limited budget or lack the editorial resources to plan a more structured event. 

Tips/Ideas: Organising an event like this takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm; there’s some preparation to spread the word and possibly find sponsors, but lots of on the fly running around at the event itself. It helps to have a well-connected organising team to invite interesting participants that don’t already know each other. Try to keep any ticket costs as low as possible to facilitate attendance by a diverse group of attendees – you only need to provide simple catering and the venue. 

Potential problems and other considerations: Don’t expect that by organising or sponsoring the event you’ll necessarily get a big input into the programme! Sometimes the organiser will set a broad topic for the event, but an unconference is really a great opportunity to listen to the passions and projects of a community (or at least its more vocal members). Sessions can be variable in quality and style, but the “high energy” participation and serendipitous networking aspects often results in new friendships and future collaborations on other projects.

ii) Hackdays

What is it? Until a few years ago, I’d thought of hackdays as events where those who can code get together to build a new tool over a long day or whole weekend. However, the definition now seems to be expanding to any type of event where the aim is to create solutions to particular problems through an intense day or two of in-person collaboration. Scientific publishers such as PLOS and eLife have supported hackdays, which may involve asking participants to create a new tool using the API of one of their existing products. Sometimes hackdays are pitched as competitions, where the team with the best creation at the end of the hack wins a prize.

Examples:  The “Flash hacks” event led by OpenCorporates during this year’s Open Knowledge Festival; hack4ac put together by eLife and PeerJ, railsrumble (which resulted in SciCombinator), The World Science Festival hackdays, NHS hackdays.

Suitable for: Makers and anyone who likes to get creative and hands-on about problem-solving. Tends to help if you know how to code, but some hackdays don’t require this e.g. the emphasis may be on a creating a handbook or other documentation, or on participants bringing along their existing projects to find others to collaborate with.

Tips/ideas: As an organiser, the important things to provide are reliable wifi plus food and coffee so that attendees don’t need to go in search of their own. The hackday at the World Science Festival had a programme for each day where sessions of hacking were punctuated by workshops where attendees could trouble-shoot or learn new skills from each other. There were also a couple of high profile guest speakers. Think about how you might use any space that you’re considering for the hackday. The ITP venue at NYU that was used for the World Science Festival hackdays includes an open plan presentation area in the centre of the building surrounded by classrooms with glass walls and white boards so that participants can doodle their ideas around the room.

If you require attendees to download software, data or to familiarise themselves with material, then send this out at least a week in advance and encourage them to do a small amount of preparation. This ensures that everyone can hit the ground running and make the most of the limited time together.

Potential problems and other considerations: Sadly, with some hackdays the end results are never shared. This is usually because the transient connections are lost when everyone goes back to their day jobs. Do you have a plan to upload everything to a website/GitHub/collaborative documents for external input once the event is over? Who’s going to be responsible for doing this? What happens if projects aren’t finished within the timeframe of the hack? Or what if they are such a great idea that you want to continue working on them in future?

Finally, there’s concern that organisations may see hackdays as an opportunity to create new tools at low cost and outside the normal, organisational constraints.  Clear, upfront communication of what the expectations are around the events and who owns the end outputs can help avoid this.

iii) Workshops within a conference

What is it? The opportunity to break up the more traditional conference format of discussion sessions with a demo of new tools or opportunity to learn a new skill. Workshops can take various formats. They may be a demo led from the front of the room, or small project groups to working on a particular task and then reconvening towards the end of the session to share with the rest of the group.

Examples: In its last couple of years, ScienceOnline ran a small number of pre-conference workshops where the focus was on longer sessions where attendees could learn more about e.g. social media metrics.  We trialled workshops at SpotOn London several years ago too – teaching blogging tips, social media tools and even R programming language – with varying degrees of success! One of the workshops at Open Knowledge Festival focused on political graffiti – with a graffiti wall made from boxes that attendees could then decorate during spare moments at the event.

The graffiti wall at this year's OKFestival. Image credit: author's own.

The graffiti wall at this year’s OKFestival. Image credit: author’s own.


Tips/ideas: Running a workshop within a larger conference can be challenging and requires a lot of forward planning. Have you got all the A/V equipment and related software set up in advance? How many people can you accommodate in the workshop and do you need attendees to sign up in advance? What about time management of the session? It can help to block out the time allocated for the workshop into chunks and be realistic about what you’re going to achieve in each of them e.g. x minutes for an intro, x minutes for tool A, x minutes for an exercise with tool A and so on. Check the time regularly and be comfortable with being flexible so that you can adjust and omit sections if necessary – such as when the attendees want to delve into more detail about a particular tool or skill. Preparing good handouts with links to any tools mentioned can help anyone who wants to continue learning at home after the session.

Potential problems and other considerations: A workshop within a conference typically suffers most from time constraints. An hour or less is often not long enough to introduce participants to a new tool and allow them to gain much experience using it. And this can be made worse if previous sessions over-run. Consider blocking out an entire morning or afternoon for the workshop and be sure to remind attendees that it’s a valuable part of the programme that they’ll benefit from attending.

iv) Soapbox unconference sessions within a conference

What is it? Typically, when planning discussion sessions for conferences, speakers and topics are decided months in advance, which can leave no space for last minute topical debates that may be of interest and importance to the attendees. A soapbox unconference is when a session slot or two are deliberately left empty within the conference schedule and suggestions are taken during the conference itself about which topics the attendees want to see addressed.  In some cases, there can be a session (or lunchbreak) during which people pitch their suggestions and voting occurs to select which topics make it through.

Examples:  The “unfestival” at this year’s Open Knowledge Festival

Don't forget to let attendees know about the unconference sessions! In person and online :) Image credit: Data Uruguay

Don’t forget to let attendees know about the unconference sessions! In person and online 🙂 Image credit: Data Uruguay


Tips/ideas:  This can require quite a lot of work to organise at the conference itself so you need to allocate someone in advance to coordinate the submission of ideas, allocation of space and communication about the sessions. This could be one of the main conference organisers, or might be an interested group of trusted attendees. Announce how the unconference will work at the beginning of the event and let people know where they can submit suggestions and how they’ll be contacted if they’re invited to take part.

Potential problems and other considerations: It may be that there are particularly contentious current issues that are highly likely to be suggested as sessions. Decide in advance how best to handle this e.g. if this is a really important topic for the community, can you make time for it in the main programme and help to put together a session where a variety of voices will be heard? Lay out any constraints about what is acceptable openly – and in advance.