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StarCamp - Lessons learned

StarCamp finally happened, and went off pretty well. I was a bit late for the first morning, since I had to move house (again), but the rest of the weekend was great.

From an infrastructure/organisational point of view, things were basically perfect. The large room where the talks were happening was fine for our needs, and there was enough space for everybody, although we had to open up the back to accomodate some more people at one stage. AIMS provided tea and coffee for everybody, and lunch on both days was a huge amount of great wraps from Kauai (generously sponsored by Sentient Communications and CLUG). ProsperIS sponsored computer equipment for the small venue, for the tutorials and sprints - these unfortunately only got set up halfway through the last day of *camp, which is something we must fix for next time. And, of course, there was Neil's Nintendo Wii, which provided some great fun, and was greatly enjoyed by the students at AIMS.

The talks were generally very interesting. As Ian says, the high points were probably the three talks by our foreign visitors - Alex and David from Princeton, on Electronic Voting and Net Neutrality respectively, and Phil Barrett from the UK on User Experience. I did enjoy quite a few of the others, although I'd like lots more non-technical talks next time. I think that in-depth nitty-gritty technical talks should be saved for either CLUG talks, or the tutorials: one can't take in enough from those talks for them to be useful otherwise.

The people were great. It was nice to see quite a few new faces (i.e. not part of the usual CLUG/GeekDinner crowd), although I wish we'd had a bigger turnout overall. This probably ties in with the talks: the nature of an Unconference is that the attendees shape the events, rather than the other way round, which is the norm for traditional conferences. If we had lots of artists, we'd have lots of art-related talks, if you see what I mean. I know that there were a few people who felt a bit trepid about attending, because they didn't think it was targetting them as an audience. This is not how an Unconference works! If you're in the audience, you participate, and you define how it goes.

Lessons learned

Venue, venue, venue: This is not so much a lesson we've learned from organising StarCamp, but a lesson I've picked up over a year of trying to organise this sort of event. If you don't have a venue, all other organisation stalls. You can't pick a date with absolute certainty unless you know the venue will be available on that date. You don't get attendees signing up unless they know what date they are signing up for (and, in some cases, how far they have to travel). You don't get speakers if you don't have attendees. Basically, it all boils down to finding a venue - once that is done, everything else falls into place. In this case, we only settled on AIMS a week before the event was due to happen, and even though everything went off beautifully after that, it was a bit touch-and-go up until then.

Attendees: We blogged the event, and sent out reminders on the mailing lists, and we got a fairly good sign-up rate, but it could have been so much better. Some of the best returns-on-investment in this regard were the personal invitations we sent out: directly approaching a person/group/company and saying "We're having this thing, and we want you to be there". Neil did an awesome job with this in the week before the event, but we really need to get the word out there beforehand, and make sure that people know what sort of event it will be (and that if they come, it'll be the sort of event which they want to attend).

Sponsors: people are surprising willing to sponsor things, if you ask them to. Make a note of that.

Set up: wasting half of the event time on setting up tables/power cables/a lab of computers is really counter-productive, and we lost some valuable presentation time because of this. But, of course, it's all a learning experience, and we know better for next time.


All in all, I think the event was a great success, and I'm really looking forward to the next one... Which we should start organising NOW.