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  • Design for Behavior: Part 2

    socialdevcampfall-1

    Twice last year, I had the experience of putting together SocialDevCamp East, a barcamp-style unconference for software developers and entrepreneurs focused on social media.

    Sounds straightforward enough, but that sentence alone is jam-packed with important design decisions. And those design decisions carried through the entire event, and even into its long-term impact on our community and our community’s brand. I’ll explain.

    Barcamp-Style Unconference

    In the last few years, the Barcamp unconference format, focused on community involvement, openness, and attendee participation has gained a lot of traction. I won’t write a ton here describing the format and how it all works as that’s been done elsewhere, but the key point is that this is an open event which is supported by and developed by the community itself. As a result, it is by definition designed to serve that community.

    So what are some other design implications of choosing the Barcamp format? Here are two big ones.

    First, anyone who doesn’t think this format sounds like a good idea (but how will it all work? what, no rubber chicken lunch? where’s the corporate swag?) will stay away. Perfect. Barcamp is not a format that works for everybody – particularly people with naked corporate agendas. It naturally repels people who might otherwise detract from the event.

    Second, the user-generated conference agenda (formed in the event’s first hour by all participants voting on what sessions will be held) insures that the day will serve the participants who are actually there, and not some imagined corporate-sales-driven agenda that was dreamed up by a top-down conference planning apparatchik three months in advance.

    The fact that there are no official “speakers” and only participants who are willing and able to share what they know means that sessions are multi-voiced conversations and not boring one-to-many spews from egomaniacal “speakers.”

    The Name: SocialDevCamp East

    We could have put on a standard BarCamp, but that wasn’t really what we wanted to pursue; as an entrepreneur and software developer focused on the social media space, I (and event co-chairs Ann Bernard and Keith Casey, who helped with SDCE1) wanted to try to identify other people like us on the east coast.

    We chose the word Social to reflect the fact that we are interested in reaching people who have an interest in Social media. It also sounds “social” and collaborative, themes which harmonize with the overall event.

    We chose the wordlet Dev to indicate that we are interested in development topics (borrowing from other such events like iPhoneDevCamp and DevCamp, coined by Chris Messina). This should serve to repel folks that are just interested in Podcasting or in simply meeting people; both fine things, but not what we were choosing to focus on.

    Obviously Camp indicates we are borrowing the Barcamp unconference format, so people know to expect a community-built, user-driven event that will take form the morning of the event itself.

    We chose East to indicate that a) we wanted to draw from the entire east coast corridor (DC to Boston, primarily), and b) we wanted to encourage others in other places to have SocialDevCamps too. Not long after SDCE1, there was a SocialDevCamp Chicago.

    Additionally, our tagline coined by Keith Casey, “Charting the Next Course” indicates that we are interested in talking about what’s coming next, not just in what’s happening now. This served to attract forward-looking folks and set the tone for the event.

    The Location

    We wanted to make the event easily accessible to people all along the east coast. Being based in Baltimore, we were able to leverage its central location between DC and Philadelphia. Our venue at the University of Baltimore is located just two blocks away from the Amtrak train station, which meant that the event was only 3 hours away for people in New York City. As a result had a significant contingent of folks from DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, many of whom came by train.

    Long Term Brand Impact

    These two events, held in May and November 2008, are still reverberating throughout the region’s community. At Ignite Baltimore on Thursday, SocialDevCamp was mentioned by multiple speakers as an example of the kind of bottom-up grassroots efforts which are now starting to flourish here.

    The event has the reputation of having been a substantive, forward-looking gathering of entrepreneurs, technologists, and artists, and that has gone on to color how we in the region and those in other regions perceive our area. Even if it’s only in a small way, SocialDevCamp helped set the tone for discourse in our region.

    Design? Or Just Event Planning?

    Some might say that what I’ve described is nothing more than conference planning 101, but here’s why it’s different: first, what I’ve described here are simply the input parameters for the event. Writing about conference planning would typically focus on the logistical details: insurance, parking, catering, badges, registration fees, etc. Those are the left-brained artifacts of the right-brained discipline of conference design.

    Everything about the event was designed to produce particular behaviors at the event, and even after the event. While I make no claim that we got every detail perfect (who does?), the design was carried out as planned and had the intended results. And of course, we learned valuable lessons that we will use to help shape the design of future events. Event planners should spend some time meditating about the difference between design and planning; planning is what you do in service of the design. Design is what shapes the user-experience, sets the tone, and determines the long-term value of an event.

    More to Come

    I’ve got at least 3 more installations in this series. Stay tuned, and I’d love to hear your feedback about design and how it influences our daily experience.

    WARNING – GEEK/PHILOSOPHER CONTENT:  It occurs to me that the universe is a kind of finite-state automaton, and as such is a kind of deterministic computing machine. (No, I was not the first to think of this.) But if it is a kind of computer, then design is a kind of program we feed in to that machine. What kind of program is it? Well, it’s likely not a Basic or Fortran program. It’s some kind of tiny recursive, fractal-like algorithm, where the depth of iteration determines the manifestations we see in the real world.

    As designers, all we’re really doing is getting good at mastering this fractal algorithm and measuring its effects on reality.

    See you in the next article!

    Coworking Begins in Baltimore

    In September, I had the opportunity to hang out with Alex Hillman in Vienna, Austria at the wedding of our mutual friends Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs, and while Alex and I had peripherally known of each other, we hadn’t had a chance to actually meet and talk.  It turned out we were both staying at the same hostel, and as a result we had a chance to talk about a bunch of stuff from projects to Alex’s pioneering work in developing coworking at IndyHall in Philadelphia.

    I’d known about coworking and its evolution since 2007; in fact I talked with Noel Hidalgo on video about the concept in Berlin in July 2007, along with Travis Todd, but while I liked the idea of coworking I didn’t really have a way to put it in practice yet.

    Well, after seeing events like SocialDevCamp, Ignite Baltimore, and TwinTech take root here in the Baltimore area, it became clear to me that the time was also ripe for coworking in Baltimore. As I shared the idea with friends and colleagues, it was clear that we could build momentum around the concept quickly.

    So, on Saturday and with Alex’s help, we held a session on coworking at SocialDevCampEast2, and we went over the key concepts behind coworking, answered some questions, and by the end of the session had created a mailing list.  Yesterday we held the first “official” Baltimore coworking session at Bluehouse, and we expect to keep that up every Tuesday and Thursday until we establish a more permanent home.

    Of all the insights that Alex has gained in running IndyHall, I’d say this is the most important: “If IndyHall, as a place, ceased to exist tomorrow, IndyHall would still exist as a community.”  And this is truly key. Too often, people get distracted with the particulars of a piece of real estate or a locale or amenities; none of that is central to the mission.  The most important thing is the community and the ideas they share. There will always be a place where that community can take root.

    That being said, we are looking at various ways to give coworking in Baltimore a more permanent home, and we have a bunch of ideas about how to do that.  If you would like to be in on that conversation, I invite you to join the Coworking Baltimore Google Group.  And of course, stop by Bluehouse next week on Tuesday or Thursday, between 10am and 4pm!

    Feel free to contact me with ideas or questions about coworking and how we can establish a sustainable, vibrant creative community here in Baltimore! I’m really looking forward to working with all of you.

    SocialDevCampEast2 Recap

    I’m finally recovered after a really exhausting week that included SocialDevCamp and the wild ride of Twitter Vote Report.

    SocialDevCampEast2 went off without a hitch on Saturday at University of Baltimore.  Once again, some of the best and brightest developers, entrepreneurs and social media gurus gathered to trade ideas and talk about the future of the web.

    One thing we try to do at SocialDevCamp is vote on the sessions, to make sure they are things that people really want to hear about, or at least size the discussions to the right rooms.  We ran 5 rooms all day in 5 sessions plus lunch, for a total of 25 sessions! Check out the wiki to see the sessions that were held.

    Personally, I enjoyed the conversation on location technology, and why location-based social networks have yet to reach critical mass.  Most folks felt that there was a technological barrier — it’s just too hard to continuously update your location with current device and battery constraints — and others questioned what incentives people have to update their locations.  We decided that those incentives probably needed to be tuned in order to see a successful location-based service emerge, and that there may also be benefit for people sharing location-related information anonymously.  Great talk, and I’m still thinking about what incentives might make LBS actually work.

    We did a session on Twitter Vote Report, which was awesome because we were actually able to recruit some members of the crowd to do some work on the project!  Bryan Liles and John Trupiano contributed some great work to the codebase, some while sitting in the session!  We talked about the overall architecture of the project, and the fact that it was put together in just two short weeks of coding!

    There was a good conversation about iPhone development, introducing people to the platform and answering questions about the platform.  Many seemed to be glad to get a feel for Cocoa and I wouldn’t be surprised if several of the folks there end up working on the platform!

    Alex Hillman of Philadelphia’s Indy Hall helped to lead a discussion on co-working in Baltimore, and by the end of the session, we had actually launched co-working in Baltimore, with a mailing list and a set of great ideas for taking things forward.  Yesterday, we held our first “official” co-working meetup at Bluehouse in Baltimore; I’ll write more about the co-working initiative separately.

    Because I wasn’t in the other sessions, I can’t say what all was said in them, but I heard good things about the conversations on data portability, source code management with Git, and crowdsourcing. If you were in one of the sessions, feel free to leave some comments here or links to your own blog!

    Ann Bernard helped put together an awesome party for SocialDevCamp at Metro Gallery with great food from Tapas Teatro and an open bar.  And live music from Natasha El-Sergany, KADMAN, and Ra-Ra-Rasputin… A great way to end the day, and I can say that by the time it was all over, I had talked to a few hundred people and was completely exhausted!

    This morning, Mike Subelsky, a friend and one of the organizers of the recent and fabulous Ignite Baltimore said via email, “It is not an exaggeration to say that SDCE has totally changed my life,” referring to the first SocialDevCamp held in May. Not to sound self-congratulatory, but the same is true for me.

    SocialDevCamp is one of a few things sparking a renaissance here in the Baltimore/Washington area, giving rise to events like Ignite and to movements like co-working.  With the social media tools available now, this sort of thing is finally possible to do, and it’s hugely gratifying to see it happening!

    See you next spring for SocialDevCampEast3!

    SocialDevCamp East + TwitterVoteReport = Busy

    Being busy seems to always come in spurts for me… just when it looks like I’ve got too much to do already, something cool turns up and takes things to whole new level of busy.

    That would be this week. SocialDevCamp East, the barcamp-style unconference that I started with some friends last spring is back tomorrow, and that’s certainly required some coordination and planning.  That would have been plenty.  We have over 200 RSVP’s now (between the Wiki and Facebook) and we expect a truly incredible day of networking and learning.  See you tomorrow!

    The other big news of the last two weeks has been the TwitterVoteReport project, for which I’ve been acting as defacto CTO since about October 18th.  This is a great project, a great cause, and an awesome idea.  The data we collect will be an archival quality primary source document for future generations to study the evolution of the election process.

    We have five distinct data sources coming in about people’s experience at their polling places: Twitter, Telephone, Direct SMS, and Apps for Android and iPhone.  These are all normalized and aggregated into a single database and reviewed by humans for maximum accuracy.  The data will then be made available in real time to anyone who wants it — from the media to watchdog groups to mapmakers — to help the world understand and monitor the 2008 US elections.

    Putting this project together, with all these diverse inputs, has been a monumental task and a real demonstration of what’s possible when people decide to work together.  We had over 600 phone channels donated.  We were able to think up, code, and submit an iPhone app in just 3 days.  We’ve received press coverage far and wide from sources as diverse as TechCrunch and Fox News.  Not bad for a few days’ work.

    There’s plenty more to do still (between now and Monday), and I’m busy all day tomorrow at SocialDevCamp.  We’ll do a session there on TwitterVoteReport and what we’re up to… we still need more help from people good with maps!

    I’ll post more here as things evolve, and a recap next week, but remember, nothing’s impossible when caring people dedicate themselves to a common endeavor.

    Meantime, check out:

    And watch for news about TwitterVoteReport.com on NPR and in the Baltimore Sun (in addition to myriad other outlets!)