how to broaden participation in your unconference

Maybe there's been a scramble for tickets. Maybe there's some people who just can't get there. So how do you make sure people outside the venue can take part too? Here's some ideas for remote participation.

by John Fox, Sweyn Hunter, Leah Lockhart, Lesley Thompson and James Coltham

Hosting an event? We'd like to offer some thoughts on enabling remote participation by folk who, for one reason or another, are unable to be present in person.

In May 2012 we staged Island Gov Camp (#IsleGC12) in Kirkwall, Orkney. The idea was to hold ‘an unconference for people working in and around government in islands, wherever they may be (including the big one with Cardiff, Edinburgh, and London on it); and for anyone with connections to islands, however tenuous.’

If you live or work in a remote location, or perhaps your mobility is restricted through disability, then it often isn't feasible to attend events which generally take place in centres of population such as Scotland's central belt, Birmingham or London.

For many years requests have been made from Orkney and other islands to facilitate remote participation for such audiences; recently, event organisers have sometimes been prepared to consider what can be done, and some limited attempts have been made to provide remote attendance options in some cases. All to often, though, cost and the extra effort required to enable such participation are still cited as reasons why it cannot (or will not) be done.

Island Gov Camp was planned with remote participation at its heart. We wanted to prove a concept that we believed could be applied cost-effectively at all government events to enable greater participation, particularly from those audiences who, by dint of their geographical location or general mobility, were normally excluded.

We tried to use twitter and live video streaming in a coordinated way to provide the best experience we could on the day, for those participating remotely. The effort we put into interactively tweeting the event were more successful than our attempts to livestream, so this post will focus on the former. We are hoping to use some of the things we learned about livecasting at this coming weekend's ScotGovCamp13, so we'll share our livestreaming experience from staging both events in a future Comms2Point0 post.

So that all participants, remote or physical, were able to contribute ideas for discussion in advance of the event we used Ideascale, which enabled interested parties to propose topics and provide some background to their suggestion. Registered users were then able to vote up (or down) topics of interest. This schedule was then introduced at the start of the live event. You can view the Island Gov Camp Ideascale page at http://islandgovcamp2012.ideascale.com/ .

We had 4 rooms available, and we arbitrarily named each room (we used the names of four islands in the Orkney archipelago – Swona, Hoy, Mainland and Papay). We allocated a sequential hashtag for each room that changed from session to session, e.g. #Papay1, #Papay2 and so forth. Ahead of each session, a tweet announced the upcoming session topic and the hashtag assigned to it. 

In each session we had two designated tweeters. One, exclusively narrating the discussion that took place in the session, adding "#Papay3 #IsleGC12" to every tweet. The intention of this narration was to be the eyes and ears of remote attendees, enabling them to 'listen in' to the conversation as far as possible.

So far so good, but without the next crucial consideration those remote attendees were still little more than observers, excluded from actively participating. A second tweeter was the 'listener', monitoring the designated hashtag for comments or specific questions posed by remote attendees. In each session its leader was aware that the 'listener' was representing the remote participants and would, when appropriate, be chipping in with their contributions.

The circle was completed when the session's narrator subsequently tweeted that a remote participant, identifying them by Twitter ID, had posted a question or observation. The remote participant then had confirmation that their question or observation had been contributed to the discussion.

Lessons learned

Whilst the primary focus of Island Gov Camp was to discuss government issues of relevance to island communities small and large, our secondary focus – that of remote participation – did rather come to dominate the event! Post event, some feedback indicated that in trying to create an event where remote participation was inclusive, unfortunately at times this was pursued to the exclusion of physical participants! In short, there was no Plan B!

We became mired in rather a weird paradox of trying to maintain an event focused on remote attendees but didn’t plan sufficiently for something going wrong that might (and did) compromise that participation, conveniently forgetting that remote attendees are left hanging if there isn’t a Plan B in place.

So maybe the lesson for others, based on our experience, is that if you are going to promote remote attendance, make sure you’re clear that if the live streaming drops Plan B is this or that, and that Plan B is communicated clearly and in advance so everyone know what to do in such an eventuality.

Overall our experience of promoting Twitter as the channel of remote participation worked well. We’d like to share these lessons learned which we believe are worth taking into account if you plan to encourage remote participation at a future event:

 

  • Ensure you have sufficient volunteers lined up to do facilitate the various roles or tasks in Plan A (or B!).
  • Allow time to test and embed Plan A and B in advance of the event start.
  • Check (and recheck) wifi and upstream bandwith at the venue in advance of the event.
  • Ascertain firewall restrictions that may be applicable at the event venue.
  • In trying to stage an inclusive event, be sensitive to the potential impact on discussions or other distraction for physical attendees when facilitating remote participation.
  • Create a sequential hashtag list in advance of the event and allocate by room name or location for each discussion session rather than a nominal ‘session1’, ‘session2’ etc., the use of which could lead to confusion.
  • Rather than attempting to live tweet every session, consider sharing the topic list online as early in the event as possible and ask remote attendees to tell you which topics they would like to have live tweeted.

 

We’ll be putting our experience in Kirkwall in May 2012 to practical use at ScotGovCamp 2013 which is taking place in Edinburgh this coming Saturday, 14th September.

It’s not too late to sign up to attend ScotGovCamp 2013 in person but you’ll also be able to participate remotely via Twitter – the hashtag is #scotgc13 – and pre-event ideas are being posted at http://scotgovcamp.ideascale.com.

John Fox Digital Channels Strategy Manager, Sheffield City Council), Sweyn Hunter (Database Support Officer at Orkney Islands Council), Leah Lockhart (Director at Relate Lab), Lesley Thomson (Creativitor, Scottish Government) and James Coltham (Web Services Manager, Children & Families, at the City of Edinburgh Council).

Picture credit.