August 10, 2009
Transparency Camp West: Observations
First, Kaliya Hamlin has written a great post on how to manage an unconference so that participants get the most from the event, and feel connected to the topic and solving a particular problem set as well as make stronger social relationships for future potential workings (in this case Transparency Camp West, held yesterday in Charlie's old cafe plus a few small conference rooms at Google in Mountain View).
I attended Transparency Camp West (#TCamp09) from Saturday Afternoon through Sunday's brief closing. It was structured more like a BarCamp or FooCamp (with minimal facilitation) than an unconference using the Open Space method (pdf) (which has a bit more social and activity facilitation and structure). I attended TCamp because I'm interested in, as well as want to help with, Transparency which I feel strongly is a very good thing for government to engage in.
The first Barcamp was formed as an alternative to FooCamp, O'Reillly's "friends of oreilly" camp held at their headquarters annually (note I have attended FOO and really enjoyed it.) That first Barcamp had the social cohesion that forms around the shared hurts which many there felt as insult and exclusion, because of an unfortunate and ill-worded blog post about FooCamp inclusion. So that particular Barcamp's lack of facilitation wasn't an issue. (Note that I didn't personally feel the insult because I know the people who run FooCamp and knew it wasn't directed at me personally. Yet I felt it for the other young folks there who couldn't understand whether they were the ones being called out as unworthy to attend Foocamp and therefore felt hurt. I spent a fair amount of time that first and second day of the first Barcamp consoling young developers, explaining that I didn't think they were the targets of that Foocamp blog post either.. but they were hurt anyway. And hurts do bring a certain cohesion.)
But subsequent Barcamps have suffered from the lack of a Beginning and Ending. They have a start and a finish, but they don't really begin in any formal way, where a facilitator helps the event process and participants to plan the event agenda, announce each session proposal, and then push for documentation of learnings, nor do they have an ending where the participants are brought back together to share learnings and insights, and close properly as a social group who may, hopefully want to see each other again one day. Barcamps often just start. Organizer announces a wall. And that's it. Dive in. Left socially flapping in the breeze.
When I've attended Barcamps in NYC or Austin or SF or other local barcamp styled events, I've alternately been pleased to see everyone show up and many present something interesting, and yet dismayed by the lack of social cohesion or shared learning and evolving that I know from experience is possible at an open space style unconference. This is especially true for the wall-rushing of the Bar/Foo style, which is great if your 22 and male, and want to dive head first into a pile of bodies to get your slot. But if you're not (and say female or not 22) then you would likely really enjoy the ability to announce one at a time your session without having to dive ass in the air into the sweaty bodies just to get your slot. Filtering agenda creation through that process has nothing to do with whether a session will be any good, and everything to do with 22 y old male "f-u" culture.
But think about an unconference as a story: there is a beginning, a middle and an ending when it's done well.
Open Space unconferences provide that social structure, without filling in the content. The participants do that. It's still an unconference but it's got social support in a way that Barcamps don't.
So why does it matter that Transparency Camp was more Barcamp than Open Space? Because it felt like they squandered the opportunity to get the most out of the participants brainstorming solutions and connecting socially around the tough problems that many, most notably the Sunlight Foundation are attacking. In fact, I didn't realize until the end of the event that there was any particular leader leading the event (I missed the beginning because I thought it would be really hard to get in but in fact the event was in a huge cavernous space with tons of room and comparably few people.. sparse even.. though the break out rooms which were tiny were often packed -- that said, I missed their beginning and only heard it later). At the brief ending, when the leader said, "Anybody have anything to say, or any criticisms?" to that giant cavernous room with a few people milling about at the end, it felt so awkward. No.. I'm never going to share anything under those circumstances. Certainly not criticisms.
I think he was a little out of his depth in terms of facilitation experience. Though I did love the singing he did to call everyone back into the ending time.
One thing the FooCamp/BarCamp method sets as an expectation is that everyone will "come present something amazing." Well, not everyone has something amazing to present. Or is an expert. But what TCamp had was a bunch of smart people in the room interested in a particular problem set: transparency of data.
I did work for a congressman long ago for 4.5 yrs, 1.5 of which was in Washington, but I'm a technologist now. I work with hopefully-structured data and make algorithms and create systems and interfaces.. I don't work in government currently -- hate bureaucracy -- but I do want transparency in government and so I'm strongly aligned with the Sunlight Foundation's mission. In other words, I gave TCamp a day and a half of my time as a non-expert in current government transparency to try to help as a civic gesture, not because I do it for a living.
So why not instead use Open Space, which sets the expectation that some will present amazing things, but the rest will attack a problem from different angles in a discussion format? This is a subtle, but very important social distinction about session formats. However, including both session formats requires an Open Space facilitation method to get people thinking in the direction of question and answer, not presentation broadcast and competition, so that they are socially aligned to work together, but also not so structured that it takes the life out of the budding, thoughtful ideas these participants might come up with around the problem-set.
In other words, it's a balance: structure and openness. This balance is cultivated in the Open Space, camp process where there is a real opening and closing plus announced sessions. Also important is the social evening event between the two days, where all organizers of the event should attend to give even the this time heft and importance as an integral part of the communal event, as well as to receive informal feedback on how things are going. Aside: when I walked into the TCamp evening event and saw none of the organizers there, and a sea of people I mostly didn't know, I though.. oh it's not that important to be here and I'm tired and want to go home and eat something simple and light and just chill. But before I saw that, I was fully prepared to spend the evening continuing to socialize around the Transparency Camp problem-set.
(image by Joseph Boyle)
I really enjoyed Dan Gillmor's session on governmental dissemination of information in an open, and individuated media world. Dan is thoughtful and sincere in his desire to chronicle and assist with the transformation from broadcast to social and individual media as we navigate this new world, especially around government data. I also liked the session on Lobbyists which was hilariously and spontaneously focused on how to understand and better map their activities. The session on transparent data, by Natalie Fonseca of Techpolicy, and how far should it go in exposing personal, governmental and corporate data was great.. though the strides were likely lost to Twitter's short horizon of maintained tweets. I do hope someone took notes about what we discussed and posts them. And Esther Dyson's session on genetic data sociality and exposure was terrific, if not totally on topic about government data transparency.
One last thing, overall I enjoyed TCamp and would attend again. But there were a number of incidents where I saw people puffing themselves up as they presented things (sometimes great, sometimes ill conceived) or otherwise talked in sessions (the amount of reactionary eye rolling confirmed for me that I wasn't the only one surprised and dismayed by this behavior across sessions). It may be that in order to be a technologist / player in Washington or other governmental locals, that being pompous is a job requirement in order that the old guard in WDC or California take you seriously. But considering the problem set: transparency for the common man, I felt there was some irony in this behavior. And since some of it came from Sunlight folks, it made me worried for them. I know we could do the typical Silicon Valley thing where some engage in something stupid, and we all don't say anything and two years later they fail. But Sunlight and these other orgs don't have two years to figure out that this behavior is counterproductive. They are non-profits and there is a public good to what they do, and they need to deal with this now, not figure it out in two years after no-one has said anything.
Thankfully Sunlight has people like the extraordinary Ellen Miller and the very thoughtful Esther Dyson, whom I hope can help school these youngsters in the idea that self-puffery gets you nowhere in Silicon Valley, or for that matter outside the Beltway or Sacramento. Not to mention it makes it very difficult to listen well. Simply presenting something without your own ego inserted in front of the presentation or your contributory statement is the best way to get us all to say: WOW, what a great idea.. I want to help too! And since what you are presenting is interesting, you must be smart too!
That said, I was very impressed with Sunlight's Policy Director, John Wonderlich, who was thoughtful, socially pleasant, listened well and didn't seem to have any personal agenda to advance his own ego and stature. Maybe he even pets small children and dogs on the head and helps little old ladies cross the road as he walks to work each day too, I don't know, but Sunlight could use more people like him because he really added to every session in which I encountered him, both in terms of smart thoughts and socially to make people feel comfortable with the thoughts and ideas being passed around.