FooCamp? BarCamp?

One of the more interesting aspects of the New Communication Channels workshop was something called the “SciBarCamp” that was organized by Jen Dodd. I’d never been at a meeting which used this format before, and I was a bit dubious when I first heard about it, but it worked well with the group that was at this meeting. Here’s how it functions:

  • After a morning of more traditional talks, everyone files in to a large room. Each participant gets a sheet of paper on which they write their name, and the name of a workshop that they are interested in leading.
  • Each of these sheets of paper gets tacked up to a board in the middle of the room, and people mill around looking at all of the proposed workshop titles. If you see a workshop that looks interesting, you vote for that workshop by bubbling in a circle on the sheet of paper.
  • The conference organizer can combine workshops if they look similar (in our case, a bunch of Wiki-related workshops were combined).
  • After about half an hour, the most popular workshops are selected and scheduled in particular rooms and time slots.
  • If your workshop was popular enough, you then have to lead it!
  • People can vote with their feet too; if a workshop is boring, you are encouraged to walk out and find one that isn’t (although in practice, few people actually did this).

Controversy was pretty much at a minimum because we were all converts to doing open science in one form or another (open source, open data, open access, open notebook). But we certainly got groups of people in each workshop who were guaranteed to be interested in the topic under discussion. After all, they’d voted for that workshop topic!

In order to make this work, you need a really good organizer to explain things up front. Scientists can be socially awkward and unwilling to try new formats, but this worked out well. I hope we start to see more of this kind of thing at smaller meetings.

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