Architecture of Participation

I told a number of folks at FOSS4G 2011 that I thought this year’s event was the “best FOSS4G ever” (HT, Juan Antonio Samaranch) but that wasn’t just tongue in cheek. 2011 was the biggest ever, but only a few attendees more than Barcelona in 2010. Yet somehow I felt more energized, more connected, like I had more conversations, than in 2010.

I think the reason for my impression has a lot to do with venue. Barcelona was in a very large conference center, with the rooms fairly spread out and almost too much room for people to expand into. Further, there were no large social areas near the venue. The result was the attendees dissipating after the end of the day’s programming.

In Denver, many of the attendees were in the Sheraton, co-located with the program venue. The Winkoop brewery provided a space sufficient to bring in hundreds of attendees for the welcome social. The Sheraton building itself included two pubs capable of seating hundreds, and hundreds of attendees did in fact sit there. The gravitational effect was of people walking by, seeing their FOSS4G comrades, and joining in the group themselves. It was hard to drink alone at FOSS4G 2011!

We had a similar dynamic in 2007, though honestly, not as good, since our “main meeting pub” was closed one night for a private event, and we never had the thought to simply book it ourselves for our own group (live and learn). Nor were we able to co-locate the event with a conference hotel (using the Empress Hotel which abuts the Victoria convention centre would have been prohibitively expensive.)

I think the lesson for future organizers is to thing very carefully about venue and connectivity and social gravity. Ensure there is a social space where many can fit and can find each other for fortuitous meetings. Try to keep all the components of the event (venue, rooms, social areas) as close together as possible. Give as many opportunities (welcome social, random social, exhibitors social, event gala) for mixing as possible. Avoid the sit-down event (which locks folks into a handful of interlocutors) in favour of the stand-up (which allows free flowing).

Seeing how well Denver did makes me almost want to try again and see if I can do better. Almost.