IDCC17 Birds of a Feather sessions - what, why, how

Kevin Ashley | 24 January 2017


We're running BoFs - Birds of a Feather sessions - for the third time this year at IDCC. After making substantial changes to the process last year based on feedback from IDCC15, we're just making tweaks to the process this year. In this article, I describe what a BoF is for, what it should and should not look like, how to propose a session and how proposals will be selected. If you would like a little more background to the concept you might want to read last year's announcement, but please make sure you come back to this post to suggest and comment on sessions.

BoFs - what they are, and what they aren't

BoF sessions are highly informal opportunities to bring together people with a common interest who already intend a particular event. Unlike a workshop, keynote speech, or particular paper, you don't go to IDCC because a particular BoF session is happening. 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. It shares characteristics with the notion of the unconference.

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, or to designate someone to record discussion or outcomes, 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. At IDCC17, we'll be restricting each BoF to 50 attendees.

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. That's one of the reasons we put a 50-person cap on the BoF sessions, although it also has to do with room sizes and the session length. An example of this kind of group from IDCC16 was the BoF on handling sensitive data, which you can read more about in this blog post from one of the organisers.

The second type of BoF - exploring an idea - is usually a one-off, or part of a limited sequence of BoFs at different events around the world. If the discussion tells you that the idea isn't going to fly, then it all ends there. Otherwise, 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. Last year's BoF on capability modelling had some of these characteristics and it has informed work in projects such as the EOSC Pilot. You can read both the BoF proposal and session notes in a google doc.

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 80 minutes available for BoF sessions; that's relatively short, especially for a larger group. Be realistic about what you can achieve in that time. 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 weeks.

At the conference itself, we'll put up sign-up sheets for all the proposals we've received. People will have until the end of day 1 to put their name against BoFs they are interested in attending. The ones with the most votes will be scheduled and will run on Wednesday afternoon. We'll announce the results on Wednesday morning to give the organisers some warning. 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.

Regular attendees will notice that this years BoF sessions will be in the middle of a day usually given over to papers. That's one tweak we've made this year to the schedule. Some papers will now be delivered on day 1, and what's usually a marathon of presentations on day 2 is being split by the BoF, which allows us all time to think and interact in a different way for an hour or so.

We have 4 rooms available for BoFs. They vary in size, but we'll limit attendance at each to 50 people. To have a chance of getting a slot 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.

My thanks to John Kunze of CDL who provided the image of the DCC bird