CarCamp: Making conferences universally accessible and useful

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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Last November BarCamp London 3 took place in the Google London office. We co-sponsored it with our friends from the BBC's Backstage team. The 100 tickets went really quickly and as you can tell from the photos /videos /etc the assorted BarCampers had a great time.

This year my colleague, Julian Harris, had a brainwave. What if we started with the BarCamp idea then took it beyond the constraints of location and timezone? What if we ran a BarCamp style unconference for Googlers from all over the world but without flying everybody to the same destination? What if the unconference took place over 48 hours but spanned 7 timezones and 3 continents? In short what if we did an unconference that everybody (who works at Google) could attend rather than just those fortunate enough to live near the site?

I wrote the first email about CarCamp (aka BarCamp++) on October 7 and gathered a little band of volunteers from all over the world. We put together a successful unconference less than a month later with a budget of zero. Over the weekend of November 8 and 9 we ran the first CarCamp with CarCampers from: London, New York, Montreal, Austin, San Francisco, Mountain View, Belo Horizonte and Zurich dialling in.

Since this was an unconference we didn't have any more structure than the IETF's guiding principles of "rough consensus and running code." The attendees turned up on the day and used tools like video conferencing, Sites, Google Docs, Moderator, Jaiku and Mercurial to organize themselves. We made up new sessions, voted on them and slotted them into the schedule as we went along.

There was no central location so at any given point over the weekend some of us would be just getting up, running sessions or about to go to sleep. Whilst we didn't have enough sites to keep CarCamp running continuously over the weekend we came pretty close with just 92 registered participants. It turns out that the technical barriers are much lower than we imagined and with a sufficiently popular topic it might be possible to have a conference that really does use all 48 of the allotted hours.
In the future I can even imagine BarCamps where literally everybody who is interested can participate. At that point it becomes possible to really take advantage of what Dave Winer has called the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences: "The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage." That should lead to some very interesting conference topics.

Since this was a Google-only event a lot of the topics were confidential. However here are some of the sessions that I can tell you about:

  • Pi, i, e and friends
  • Time management and email management strategies
  • The newest grammar (which taught us all about the differences between Halliday and Chomsky's notions about grammar)
  • Structured argumentation ideas like Knowlective
  • New input and output device paradigms like Bumptop
  • Distributed development using Mercurial
  • An Aikido demonstration

We plan to run more internal unconferences and hope that the wider BarCamp movement will take up the challenge of running distributed unconferences. If you have any questions then you can either post a comment to this blog or talk to me in person at the BBC Backstage Christmas Bash.