Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

Conference Organisation for Beginners

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I’ve been attending the AGI GeoCommunity Conference here in the UK for a few years now- and this year the AGI kindly asked me if I would sit on the working group for organising GeoCommunity 2011. Being completely new to conference organisation, and wanting to get some experience for the glorious day when OSGeo:UK holds FOSS4G in the UK, I jumped at the chance. This year’s event takes place from September 20-22nd, in Nottingham (a departure from previous years, where it has been in Stratford-upon-Avon),  but the working group has met a couple of times already to get things organised. To be honest, the AGI team themselves do most of the hard work, along with the Conference Chair, but the working group decides on things like keynote and plenary speakers, assesses the papers, and decides on really important things like the theme for the party. At the event itself, I understand we have the exciting business of stuffing all the conference bags with flyers, as well as being visible through the event to help people out, moderate sessions, keep speakers to time etc.

Last week we all met in Nottingham to work through the paper selection.  This year, around 80 abstracts were received, for approximately 50 slots. The AGI uses a blind marking process for selecting papers, so we all received the abstracts with the names and any organisational details removed and had to rank them in order. This is remarkably hard to do! It’s quite easy to identify the best and the worst papers, but deciding on the relative merits of (say) papers 53-67 is very difficult. It’s also hard to be objective about this kind of thing- everyone has their own particular likes and dislikes, and their own area of expertise. However, with a working group that represents a diverse range of interests, we did end up with a reasonable consensus at the end of this process. After the blind marking, considerably more paper shuffling took place to get a balanced set of conference streams.  Grouping papers into coherent sessions and balancing out speakers was probably the hardest part of the whole process (yes, by now we knew the authors names!). The whole process was a lot of fun, including the occasional acts of sabotage as papers were (literally) stolen from one stream to go into another.

In a completely non-scientific assessment of the abstracts- “openness” was reasonably popular, although perhaps more from an open/crowd sourced data perspective rather than open source software. In the final programme, however, open source software gets a mention in a number of papers spread across pretty much all of the streams. With hindsight I’m happy that this is the right approach as it avoids ghetto-ising open source solutions rather than presenting them as viable solutions to every day problems. The whole open/crowd-sourced data debate does get its own stream though, as it’s such a popular topic at the moment.

All in all, I have to say I’m in awe of the AGI staff who make all of this look so easy. I’m also really looking forward to the event, as the programme looks really good, and the new venue should be fantastic. If you’re interested, early bird bookings are available till the end of July. For those that know about the now infamous AGI soap-box georant- it’s new location will be superb…

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