Crowdsourcing conference session write-ups

I’m headed to Frankfurt at the end of the month to take part in CSF 2014. I’m going as a regular attendee, able to pick the talks I want and listen to them without distraction. I’ve decided to do write-ups of the breakout sessions I’ll be listening to as a pilot experiment. I’m unwinding my plans here in the hope you’ll be going to Frankfurt and doing some samaritan reporting too.

A common product of large, heavily-financed events is the conference synopsis, or conference summary report. Conference summary reports are formal documents, produced by conference organisers, that give business-oriented accounts of events, summarise presentations, and provide commentary on whether or not the event met intended objectives (of course they always do). The reports are distributed to event participants and stakeholders weeks or months after events take place.

Summary reports of exceptional quality are hard to find online, and I found none in HTML format. This Summary Report for the 2011 World Conference on Social Determinants for Health is a good example of one, despite being a PDF file. The report was published in 2012, which says something about the production effort these reports can require.

Summary reports can be nice pieces of information, as the WCSDH report above shows. They also have potential to be more than just business documents in PDF format. Detouring a moment here, I can imagine rich HTML products that relay entire events as an interactive stories. These stories would reflect a social dimension too by including highlights and memorable moments — the bockwurst-eating contests, the karaoke disasters, that sort of thing. Then again, that probably becomes a different product genre, and certainly a different conversation.

Conference blogging

For smaller events and those with less budget, summary reports are typically absent. Yet in the last seven years we’ve seen a different kind of event-summation process emerge that takes some burden off organiser shoulders — conference blogging, also called “live blogging” (you can lump conference “tweeting” in here too).

In contrast to summary reports — which are products of a single editorial process and reflect consistency in format, style, and tone — blogger write-ups are multiple, discrete blog posts of individual presentations. Also, where summary reports may be published weeks or months after an event, session write-ups are generally posted immediately following a given talk. That’s an expectation on bloggers as part of the exchange with organisers. Supposedly the immediacy provides a sense of being in the moment for those following from afar.

Organisers must recruit several bloggers if they want to cover the entire program. This can be a significant cost depending on how many bloggers are needed. It also results in information reflecting different reporting skills, writing styles, and so forth. Post quality (thus value) will vary widely, and gaps in program coverage are possible if bloggers don’t live up to their end of the deal. The collection of posts may or not be centralised in the conference’s main blog. Readers wanting to follow these bloggers will need to know who they are and where they’ll be posting, but this information is rarely made clear. Lastly, blog posts are fairly ephemeral after being published as few organisers bother with post-event curation.

Regardless, conference blogging works because of a mutual exchange between organiser and blogger: Organisers want event exposure and to appease the interests of event followers. Bloggers are looking for a free pass to the fun, and are willing to make compromises to get one, just like any other conference volunteer. Organisers still must recruit bloggers and coordinate their participation, but that’s generally less difficult than producing a polished summary publication on their own.

Samaritan write-ups

Another phenomenon that has emerged in the effort to recap and share conference knowledge is what I’ll call “samaritan reporting” — the act of event participants like regular attendees, speakers, VIP guests, et cetera who have no obligation to do session write-ups but do them anyway. Samaritan write-ups.

Two people off the top of my head who do this regularly are Martin Belam and Luke Wroblewski. But as our own curation efforts for past CSF events show (for example, see the “Crowdsourced” section), a lot of people do samaritan reporting all the time.

Unlike conference blogging, which is an organised business exchange, samaritan reporting is a true form of crowdsourcing with no particular structure. Operational differences exist between samaritans and bloggers that clearly favor being a (good) samaritan, free conference tickets aside:

  1. Samaritans have no obligation to organisers, nor tied to a predetermined schedule, so they can attend whatever sessions they want. By contrast, bloggers have to make compromises in their conference experience in order to attend the event at all.
  2. Samaritans can cover as many or few of the sessions they want, even if only one talk. Bloggers typically have to churn out several posts without choice.
  3. Samaritans have no pressure to publish their write-ups immediately after a given talk is finished. The expectation on bloggers, however, is that they do publish immediately.
  4. Samaritans are not required to publish write-ups as individual posts. They can, or they can choose to collate several into a single article. Bloggers don’t have this luxury due to the requirement to publish immediately.
  5. Samaritans can publish their write-ups wherever they want. Conference bloggers typically have to publish wherever organisers decide.

These differences suggest that information produced by the samaritan is going to be better quality. Of course this depends on the skills of a given writer either way, but with time constraints removed, as they are for samaritans, there’s more time for reflection and editing copy before it’s published.

With a little structure, samaritan reporting could offer considerable cost/effort savings to organisers, and still qualify as crowdsourcing. It would only require modest effort on the organiser’s part before and after the event.

Prior to the confernece, organisers might announce their interest in samaritan contributions and designate a place for samaritans to respond. The response location could be a Google spreadsheet (or some invention of your own) with the conference program included. Potential samaritans could add their names to whatever session slots they’d like to cover, even if only one. Organisers could even simplify it for people and slap an entry form on the front, like this for CSF Frankfurt session write-ups.

The spreadsheet keeps track of reporter interest and conveniently shows where gaps exist as time goes by. You can imagine a short, eye-grabbing message in the registrant’s confirmation email at that directs there attention to the spreadsheet (or form). Organisers might periodically follow-up with it in the course of regular conference communication.

The objective is to cover the entire program with samaritan commitments so organisers don’t have to rely on conference bloggers (tickets saved and overhead reduced). Even having multiple samaritan names per session is a good and welcome thing to enrich the quality of write-ups provided. At the point where registration closes, organisers can determine if any dedicated bloggers are needed to fill gaps, or may even decide the samaritan coverage is sufficient if not total. A final pre-conference move would be a courtesy blog post saying what sessions will be getting write-up love and (perhaps) indication of who will be doing them. This gives audiences something to look forward.

After the conference, organisers should curate the samaritan contributions, making them easy to find later. Done.

Up to now CSF organisers haven’t made efforts to solicit samaritan coverage as I’m describing it now. But CSF has been doing the post curation. It’s time to see if CSF can provide solicitation structure too.

My samaritan reporting at CSF 2014

To pilot this idea, I’ll be doing samaritan writeups at CSF 2014. I’m looking to see if others attending the event would do one or more too, and especially the sessions I won’t be doing (though that’s not a constraint, do the ones you want). The more people the merrier.

The point of this is to test how easy it is to stimulate interest in samaritan reporting among attendees, and whether the process is feasible for future years. If successful, it would demonstrate true grassroots cooperation for the sake of quality, economy, sharing, and fun.

I’m only doing (or attempting to do) write-ups for my targeted breakout sessions, which is still a lot. I probably won’t post individual write-ups as sessions end, like conference bloggers are expected to do. Instead, I’ll collate summaries for a given day into a single article and publish the articles at my own site as soon as they’re ready. These articles, along with any others that attendees write, will be linked to from the “Crowdsourced” section of our upcoming 2014 – Frankfurt media page.

I’ve posted my expected conference schedule for the sessions I’ll be attending. I’ve also set up a Google spreadsheet as described earlier, which you can easily add too via this session write-ups form.

Between the other breakout sessions I’m not attending and the plenary sessions I’m not covering, there are still a lot of opportunities for you to help me with this pilot experiment, if you’re game.