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IDCC16 Birds of a Feather sessions - what, why, how

Kevin Ashley | 11 February 2016

[This post was updated on Thursday February 18th with new and corrected information re rooms.]

We're running BoFs - Birds of a Feather sessions - again at this year's International Digital Curation Conference after trying them for the first time in London for IDCC15. We learned some lessons from doing that, and as a result we've changed the process. The main thing we learned, however, was that not enough people understood what these sessions were for and how to take part in them. This news item explains that, and the new process. It's also your opportunity to propose BoF sessions and start generating interest in your proposals.

BoFs - A primer

BoFs, as they are usually known, have been a feature of more technically-oriented conferences I've attended throughout my career. Wikipedia tells us that the term's origin in this usage is obscure, but is believed to date to the 1960s. By the time of my first DECUS conference in 1980 they were an established part of the conference mix. They share features with the unconference of today, long before that term was thought of. It's clear, though, that not everyone has had the chance to attend the type of event where BoFs occur and also that not everyone is agreed on quite what a Bof is, how it works, and what its purpose is. For IDCC, we've devised our own set of principles for how they work.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that a BoF session is more informal than just about any other type of session happening at the same event. Another point of agreement is that a BoF is for people who are going to the conference anyway. Unlike a workshop, keynote speech, or particular paper, you don't go to a conference because a particular BoF session is happening. In fact, until you are at the conference, you cannot be sure that a particular BoF will happen - for IDCC16 we won't choose the BoF sessions until a few hours before they take place. The BoF is for people who are interested in a particular topic, find that they will all be at the same event, and want to use their co-location to explore that topic.

In general, this also means that there are things that shouldn't happen in a BoF. There shouldn't be any lengthy presentations or teaching taking place. There should be an equal opportunity for everyone to contribute. Although it may be helpful to have someone to facilitate the discussion to ensure everyone gets their say, you want to avoid an event that's being led by someone standing in front of the room. A BoF isn't about a performer and an audience - it's more of a round table. That can mean that the ideal BoF has a limited attendance, although this does depend a lot on the nature of the BoF, the event and the attendees. At IDCC16, it will be a constraint due to the rooms we have available.

Why have a BoF?

There are multiple reasons for having a BoF. Two common ones are:

  • Bringing together a niche community of interest;
  • Exploring an idea for a project, a standard, a piece of software, a book, an event or anything similar.

The niche community BoF will typically be people who find it useful to exchange experiences and ideas, who all clearly identify as belonging to that community, and who are unlikely to find an event that's specifically for them. People who share some characteristic, who are from a particular research domain, who are all users of a particular tool or service, are all possible groups. You do need to be a niche, though. If your self-identified group includes more than 20% of the conference's attendees a BoF isn't the right way to meet.

The second type of BoF - exploring an idea - should be a one-off. If the discussion tells you that the idea isn't going to fly, then it all ends there. You might wish to write up why, for the edification of others, but generally you will not want to produce any outputs from such a BoF nor would you be expected to. If the BoF is successful, however, then your next steps should be to do something more formal. Establish a group for collaboration, put together a team to write a project proposal, an event organising committee, or get a working group going in an organisation like the RDA. Whatever you do, you should not expect to meet as a BoF again and you should want to tell the world about what you are going to do next.

BoFs at IDCC - how and when

To propose a BoF session at IDCC, simply comment on this news item using the tools at the bottom of the post. Your proposal should be a short statement of what you want to talk about and who might be interested. 'Short' can mean as little as one sentence, or as much as a paragraph. We have 90 minutes available for BoF sessions - if you think you can make do with less time, make that clear in your proposal. It may help us schedule more BoFs, but note that you will be kept to time if you do this. You can make your proposals up to the Saturday before the conference starts, but I urge you to do so sooner. Use whatever other means you can think of to get others interested in your proposal before the conference starts. We'll aim to use twitter and maybe email to conference delegates to draw their attention to some of the proposals in the coming week.

At the conference itself, we'll put up sign-up sheets for all the proposal's we've received. People will have until lunchtime on Tuesday to put their name against BoFs they are interested in attending. The ones with the most votes will be scheduled and will run towards the end of Tuesday. We'll announce the results at the minute madness and post them for all to see. So, you only get a few hours notice but THAT DOESN'T MATTER. A BoF doesn't require lots of preparation, just enthusiastic attendance. Any presentation should be limited to 5 minutes at most in total, and should only be used if it's necessary to set the scene or explain an idea before the discussion commences. BoFs aren't workshops, or lectures, or training sessions, or a place to give the paper you wanted to give at the conference.

The rooms we'll have available are small, holding about 30 people. As a result, we may have to limit attendance if a BoF is extremely popular. We should have at least 4 of these rooms. To have a chance of using one for your group, post your idea as a comment on this post. Depending on numbers, we may give you a chance to pitch to the IDCC audience. For successful BoFs, we'll also be looking for rapporteurs who can report back to us and the IDCC audience on what happened.

Get thinking, and get commenting.