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Recipe for Unconference success

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Just over a couple of weeks ago, we held the first ever cross-Defra Data Function unconference. We’ve already posted a reflection/wrap-up blog post on it from the team behind it, but thought you might like an in-depth peek into the actual mechanics of running such a thing. Here, Elspeth Body gives some top pointers on what she did to make the Unconference a success.

I was lucky enough to help organise the Unconference. Yes - I really do mean lucky. This was the third unconference I’ve been to, all of which have been this year, but the first I’ve been involved with putting on. So what did I do?

1. Helped research venues

For an unconference you need a big communal space, ideally with a few smaller side rooms. We didn’t manage to find a place with breakout rooms this time, which meant people had trouble hearing discussions due to echo and proximity to other groups. However, it did have amazing wi-fi, an integrated audio-visual system, and provided a great space for circulating to meet and chat to people.

2. Reviewed the introductory slide pack

I was asked to run the pitching, which is where the schedule for the day gets decided by all the people in the room, based on sessions ‘pitched’ by attendees. This meant being up at the front as part of the introduction to the day. My colleague at the Environment Agency, Angharad, was compering, so along with Rebecca who was also playing a part in the introduction, we all sat down and ran through the Introduction slide deck prepared by James in the Data Programme team. James and Angharad are old hands at unconferences, and have an instinct for how to set the tone - informal, collaborative and fun is the name of the game. We didn’t need to change much in the slides, just had a bit of a practice and made sure we were familiar and comfortable with what we needed to say to all the folk coming, the large majority of whom had never been to an unconference before.

3. Turned up

I nearly didn’t manage this. When I got to Bristol Temple Meads on the Monday evening, autopilot kicked in and I got on a train going to London. After navigating my way to seat D56, I found it was reserved between Bath and Didcot Parkway. I made a confused face, and the kind lady in D55 said ‘are you not going to Bath?’. The penny finally dropped, and I could only manage an embarrassed pause before saying um, no, I’m not going to Bath…’ and hotfooting it off the train, hoping she wouldn’t spot me heading down the stairs at speed to platform 3 (Birmingham, Elspeth: you’re going to Birmingham).

4. Set up the laptop and screen

I plugged in a few cables, connected to the wi-fi, and asked the helpful tech guy at the venue to set up the big screen layout. Job done. Setting up the big screen with the #defradata twitter feed running down the side resulted in some excellent meta #defraselfies from the Data Programme team.
With all our team documents on a google drive we had had access to everything in one place - intro presentation, session grid, online countdown timer and even a happy music playlist that got put on later in the day (although this wasn’t popular with all quarters of the volunteer team)

5. Talked into a microphone, took notes, and encourage people to join in and speak up in the sessions

As I mentioned above, I was running the session pitching in the morning to sort the schedule for the day. I’d not done this before, although I’d seen it done very well a couple of times and had an idea about the approach I wanted to take. I was nervous, but when it came to it and saw the huge queue of pitchers that I was supposed to get through in 5 minutes, I just got stuck in to the job at hand and tried to get to the nub of what people wanted to talk about.

During the rest of the day I was mostly trying to keep quiet - I’m not known for holding back my opinions when it comes to data, and it was a challenge in some sessions not to chip in at every opportunity. My job was to help facilitate conversations however, and ensure that everyone who wanted to speak had their voice heard. I was also one of the note takers in other sessions, and while it was tricky at times to keep track of the free-flowing conversations, I managed to copy down verbatim a fair amount in the session documents.

6. Twitter-ed

I didn’t manage to get on twitter much during the day, but I posted a couple of photos and updates on how the day was going. There were plenty of others who were documenting the day however, and allowing people who couldn’t make it to follow along with the #DefraData hashtag.

If this doesn’t seem much for a full day event for nearly 200 people, it’s because it wasn’t! This was such a team effort from volunteers across the Defra organisations, headed up by David Buck in the Data Programme team who did an incredible amount to make it happen.

So why do I feel so lucky? I’m a huge supporter of working in the open. I only really came across the idea this year, but it’s really changed the way I think about my work. I’ve been inspired, and I’m motivated to contribute to the community who promote the collaboration and equality that underpin working in the open. I think that unconferences are part of that, and getting to work with the brilliant team and spreading a different way of working to people in Defra is something I’m really proud of.

Read more about the Unconference here.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Alan Rider DfT Data Transfomation Manager posted on

    What a great blog Elspeth. And yes, working in the open is so much better than sitting in a silo!