The Benefits of Ending a Workshop with a Bar Camp

When organising an open data workshop in 2013, Jeni Tennison made a recommendation that the 2 day event should end with a bar camp (a mini unconference). Initially I wasn't sure why it was necessary, it seems like a big chunk out of the day when we could give more time to people who have submitted papers. After that first time I immediately saw the value and now regard them as an essential feature of a workshop.

How it works: during the event, anyone can speak to the organiser and ask to pitch an idea for a session. These are added to the agenda that, of course, you edit during the event. When the final session arrives, those who have an idea to offer are given 1 minute to describe what it is they would like to talk about (use a timer on a big screen to add theatre and make sure they stick to time and don't try and give a presentation, there should not be any slides).

A row of 11 people on stage waiting to make their bar camp pitches
The line up for the bar camp pitches during the Share-PSI workshop in Lisbon, December 2014. From left to right: Heike Schuster-James, Michele Osella, Jan Kucera, Deirdre Lee, Cristiana Sappa, Paolo Dini, Peter Krantz, Miguel Garcia (hidden behind Phil Archer) Peter Winstanley (hidden behind time keeper Steinar Skagemo) Muriel Foulonnneau (exit stage right).

Once the pitches have been made, the speakers stand somewhere visible in different parts of the room and the assembled people vote with their feet. Not all ideas will receive sufficient support, several groups will naturally merge – people are very good at self organising. If breakout rooms are available, so much the better, but people can meet in different corners of the main room, in the coffee area and, weather permitting, outside.

Why it works: bar camps act as a pressure release valve – you have a room full of highly motivated people who love to talk about their work and want to talk about it with their peers: this is their chance. They'll have been talking about their issue during the coffee breaks over the whole of the event and those ideas will have evolved in the light of those discussions. A bar camp session provides a dedicated space where ideas can be bounced off several people and nascent ideas turned into proposals.

You need an hour for the discussion itself plus the set up time so the minimum time on your agenda should be an hour and fifteen minutes, then provide a wrap up session back in the plenary room at the end. It's easy enough to run a double length session, in which case you're really into unconference style organisation, with all the pitches together just before a coffee break (or lunch), then during that break, you put post-it notes onto a grid so that people know where to go during the following two sessions.

A group of people sitting on bean bags during a bar camp session. Jeremy Tandy is making a point
A bar camp session at the end of the Linking Geospatial Data workshop. This was where much of the scope for the W3C/OGC Spatial Data on the Web working group was discussed and decided. Jeremy Tandy (UK Met Office/WMO) lead the discussion with, among others, Pēteris Brūns, Štěpán Kafka, Michael Lutz, Adam Leadbetter and Kerry Taylor.