Organizing events – curation and selecting speakers

JSFoo 2013 – held between 18th and 21st Sept – is the third edition of JSFoo I have organized in two consecutive years. JSFoo has come a long way since the previous edition held in October 2012 in terms of:

  1. Increase in the number of outstation participants attending the event. This year, we had 120 outstation participants i.e. 25% of the total number of the attendees.
  2. Presence of international speakers – five of them as against none last year.
  3. After two years of persistent efforts, Mozilla participated in JSFoo this year, sending a strong contingent of three speakers, number of local representatives and showing Firefox OS to developers in India.
  4. 7 outstation speakers from India (one of who could not make it at the last minute owing to a medical emergency).
  5. Some of last years’ participants were on stage this year as speakers.
  6. Significantly better quality content this year, despite some talks not living up to the mark.
  7. Workshops and trainings held before the event to help beginners understand JavaScript better and skilled practitioners to further improve their craft.
  8. Overall, increase in the number of attendees.

Judging by some of these parameters, one could say that JSFoo 2013 has been a successful event.

In this post, I elaborate on some aspects of organizing events which I have been thinking of deeply since the beginning of this year. These have to do with content curation, selection of speakers, presence of international speakers, and the absence of ‘women’ speakers. Part of my reflections (and discomforts) also stem from my earlier stints with organizing academic conferences and editing research publications. Here we go:

Content curation: This is always a tricky one. I learnt a great deal with The Fifth Elephant 2013 process because I was chairing the programme committee.

In order to eliminate biases in voting patterns, we decided to count votes from ticket holders and not from everyone who voted on the funnel. (Earlier, at Meta Refresh 2013, decisions were made based on the votes of the programme committee only.) We felt that ticket holders have a greater stake in voting because they are attending the event and therefore want to decide which talks they really want to listen to.

For The Fifth Elephant 2013, we held three rounds of voting. In the first round, we found that some talks received high number of attendee and proportionate number of programme committee votes. There was no conflict here.

In some cases, there were more attendee votes and little interest from the programme committee. I found this to be a surprising trend and insisted that the programme committee reviews the proposals again and speaks to the proposers either over phone or comments in detail on the funnel about their concerns. The Fifth Elephant 2013 programme committee was highly responsive. (Ashok Banerjee left the committee owing to personal commitments and lack of time, though he played an important part in setting the agenda of the conference at the start.)

Through this process, we found two things: programme committee members typically consist of individuals who are ace practitioners themselves and are usually looking to explore and learn about cutting edge technologies. Whereas attendees have different motivations – learn more about something that is becoming / is popular and mainstream, improve their skills levels and knowledge, and become better practitioners. Attendees vote on some topics and technologies with these intentions. In this case, programme committee members accepted audience wisdom and gave appropriate feedback to the proposers. In yet some other cases, when programme committee members found a talk to be interesting / important and found zero to little attendee interest, they intervened by commenting on the funnel about the importance of the talk and why it was beneficial for the agenda of the conference. This influenced audience voting patterns. Regunath’s talk at The Fifth Elephant is one such instance of this.

There were other trends we discovered during the second and third rounds of voting. Older proposals continued to receive more votes and therefore continued to stand out against talks that came in later. This problem was acute in the third round of voting: newer talks that covered more diverse technology stacks and also promised to be interesting had fewer votes because they came in late. At that time, we decided in favour of diversity in technology stacks and discounted attendee votes (and counted only committee members’ votes). Later, we implemented a new feature on the funnel: view votes on a day-by-day basis to improve decisions about talks that come in later. We hoped that this will also make the review process simpler and more thorough.

Despite each of these improvements and the rigor in the review process, there are subjective factors in curation and talk selection:

  1. the amount of time that programme committee members put in for the process.
  2. disproportionate ‘voice’ between different programme committee members’ voices – some being more dominant than others.
  3. setting the expectations from the programme committee right at the beginning – what are their roles, responsibilities, how they will refer to votes on the funnel and attendee votes when judging on talks, etc.
  4. the ability of the committee chair or coordinator to bring in each of the committee members to chip in equally or at least proportionately.
  5. the process followed for curation and review. For Droidcon 2013, each committee member is in charge of a separate track instead of all committee members reviewing every talk. This reduces the overall overhead for all the committee members.
  6. time between selection, scheduling and dates of the conference – the shorter the time, the more pressure there is in selecting good talks and greater chances of the process becoming ad hoc.
  7. speakers’/proposers’ past reputation and popularity which can bias decisions.
  8. speakers’/proposers’ commitment to share drafts of their presentations in advance and willingness to receive and act upon feedback.
  9. mismatch between what the proposer initially proposed and what s/he eventually presents on stage.
  10. ‘sponsored’ proposals and proposals by ‘sponsor’ companies which put committee members in jeopardy about the financial status of the event and maintaining neutrality in content (though committee members are not connected with the financial status of the event at all. Their concerns stem more from being HasGeek well-wishers.)
  11. committee’s interest in a certain talk but low level of knowledge among attendees about the subject matter. For instance, the Julia talk at The Fifth Elephant 2013 was confirmed much later because attendees did not poll for the talk. This was because attendees did not have much knowledge about Julia. It became the committee’s task to help the proposer to make the talk relevant and more interesting to the audience. (Eventually, the Julia talk was one of the most appreciated talks at The Fifth Elephant.)

Undoubtedly, content curation is a very hard task and extremely time consuming – negotiations, hard decisions and resolving conflicts at multiple levels. We created the funnel to preserve audience interests and keep them foremost. Funnel has achieved some of these objectives and is continuously improved to make the selection process free of subjectivity.

Yet, at the end of JSFoo 2013, I am forced to think of processes and best practices for curation. How can these processes within programme committees complement the funnel, ensure that good talks are selected, good proposals stand a good chance to get to the stage, new presenters have the opportunity to be seen and heard in the community, and proposals by popular speakers continue to be thoroughly evaluated and scrutinised?

Presence of international speakers – ‘local knowledges’ and ‘outsider wisdom’: I have always held that HasGeek conferences are spaces for knowledge creation and thought leadership as much as they are spaces for sharing knowledge. This is a political process too, invariably. In my earlier experiences with social sciences, I have learnt that knowledge creation in natural and social sciences is a political process: certain forms of dominance are promoted over time, some practices get naturalized and others get delegitimized as knowledges get disseminated.

For HasGeek conferences, the presence of international speakers was important from the standpoint of:

  • Awareness of worldwide trends.
  • Knowledge of and interaction with persons who had built public / community projects (such as Cynagenmod at Droidcon 2011).
  • Raising the quality of content by having prominent international speakers. By doing so, known and unknown developers may be encouraged to come forward and present their own work and be in the presence of someone who has made a substantial contribution to the community.
  • Encouraging local speakers to imbibe some of the best practices especially with respect to presentation skills and delivery of content.

Interestingly, this year at JSFoo 2013, some of the international speakers made a point about not needing outsiders to tell local people about their knowledge systems and practices (or something to this effect). I have personally held that a ‘white person’ does not automatically have more wisdom than those who are part of local ecosystems. This is a constant reinforcement in anthropology and production of knowledge in social sciences. Presence of a ‘white person’ at HasGeek conferences is similarly not an assertion of the ‘white man’s’ or ‘white world’s’ hegemony in information technology. It is a carrot for practical reasons.

But it also produces interesting outcomes. For instance, this year, the international speakers from Europe were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the conference and the quality of developers attending them – they were simply surprised with what they saw and how their presentations were received. Our hope is that they will eventually evangelize what is happening in India with respect to information technology, open source and emerging technologies. Over time, this process may help in shifting the scales of hegemony and dominance (and perceptions).

Lack of  ‘female’ speakers: We have had this concern since a long time and have been even more conscious of this since the beginning of 2013. We have also been thinking of the means to get more ‘female’ speakers at HasGeek conferences. Should we reserve slots for women speakers? I am personally not in favour of this approach. There have been a fair number of women in technology and the industry who have also argued against this position.

I must admit that we have not made very concerted efforts in reaching out to women in technology to propose more talks. One of the action items on my agenda is to connect with groups who are actively working with / encouraging women in technology and explore possibilities and collaborations with them.

The other option is to seek women speakers who are known in technology circles and invite them to submit proposals for conferences. Perhaps this might encourage more women to even attend the conferences. (Having said this, I am told that there were more women attendees at JSFoo 2013 as compared with the previous years. We need to review the participant lists and crosscheck whether this was indeed the case.)

Finally, one of the things I am also told is that having women organize and be in charge of tech conferences – rather visibly – can be a draw for other women. I have no way of verifying this and knowing whether it is indeed true. The only instance I know is when girls from Mysore came to the JavaScript and Security hacknight in August, telling their parents that they need not worry about safety since a woman was organizing the event. 🙂

This is again an open question, and one that may take some time to be resolved.

This post has been motivated by my constant questioning of knowledge production, dissemination, and now entry into a new domain called technology whose sources of knowledge production and sharing are new and unknown to me. The post is further motivated by my business partner – Kiran Jonnalagadda’s – consistent efforts to implement solutions to bring more community participation in events, improve interfaces to enable more participation and make technology events better quality and openly available to individuals and communities. 

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About writerruns

I am lost in life. I now run to lose myself and to lose the handles I have been holding on to.
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2 Responses to Organizing events – curation and selecting speakers

  1. You and Kiran are doing an awesome job. IMHO conferences are about speakers. It doesn’t matter wether they are `white` `yellow` `green`. If the best speakers are white so be it.

    This talk by Vyacheslav Egorov at jsconfeu 2012 was seminal in the annals of JS conferences.

    This awesome talk is not something anybody can vote about. So I am pretty vary about voting talks. Speakers must be selected by a committee. Just my humble opinion.

  2. Kudos to you and Kiran, you are doing an excellent job. Thanks for writing this, I really enjoyed reading the post.

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