‘Camps’ bring nerds together to solve problems in unique ways

Got a problem? “There’s a camp for that,” quips David Crow.

The senior user experience evangelist at Microsoft Canada is also the organizer of DemoCamp, a meet-up that asks software companies to present by demonstrating their product in a brief time period.

He joins me and Mark Kuznicki, an independent consultant, who is also the founder of ChangeCamp, to talk about how the “Unconference” trend has influenced new styles of group collaboration, and why it’s becoming more popular to host these kinds of events.

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Brian Jackson: Let’s start with a brief description of your two events. David, do you want to start with DemoCamp?

David Crow: DemoCamp was something we started in Toronto in December 2005. It evolved out of BarCamp and out of FOO Camp, which was organized by Sarah Winge and Tim O’Reilly on the O’Reilly publishing campus in California. There was a bunch of folks who were invited down in 2005, but couldn’t make the trip. They decided in honour of a great event, where participants set the schedule, they’d host their own and pay tribute to the FOO Camp phenomenon by calling it BarCamp. FOO is the first canonical programming variable and bar is the second canonical programming variable. So it was very much a tribute to the efforts that Sarah and Tim had made. We ran the first BarCamp here in Toronto in November 2005.

Brian: OK, Mark tell me about ChangeCamp.

Mark Kuznicki: ChangeCamp was an event very much inspired by BarCamp and DemoCamp. It was an Unconference designed around the idea of reimagining government and citizenship in the age of participation. The idea was around how do we come together using new tools enabled by technology to talk about the kinds of cities that we want, the kinds of governments that we want, and how we want governments to be more open, more participatory, more effective, more efficient. And citizens becoming more involved in their own communities.

Brian: So I’d like to hear some specific examples now. Mark I know you organized TransitCamp, a camp that looked at Toronto’s public transit system, and I wonder if you can tell me about that camp and some changes that resulted from it?

Mark: The history of TransitCamp is that it was sparked off by bloggers in Toronto. A blogger had noticed the TTC had an RFP out for a new Web site and in the community– there was some skepticism about how good government agencies are at designing good Web sites. That blog post basically said that the tech community in Toronto might have a lot to add to what a Web site for the Toronto Transit Commission should do. So David Crow, Jay Goldman, myself, and a number of other people gathered together and said we do the camp thing, let’s do something for this. That’s how TransitCamp was created.

Similar to other Unconferences, it was a full day and participants generated a lot of content, they generated a lot of ideas that ended up in a new RFP. Because the TTC actually cancelled their RFP, said they were going to listen to the community, they engaged in the community – they came to TransitCamp, they listened to people that were technology designers, people who cared about the urban form, they took those features and put them into a RFP. So the Web site they have now and the new features they have coming out such as a transit planner, and others, were ideas that were discussed at TransitCamp.

Brian: David, how about you? What is one of your favourite examples to come out of DemoCamp?

David: For me, it’s using DemoCamp as a whiteboard as a grounds for a safe place for experimentation. It has nothing to do with DemoCamp, it has to do with the opportunity. Mike McDerment from FreshBooks has attended DemoCamp four or five times now. He’s used DemoCamp and the audience to test out new presentations, new theses, and new opportunities for FreshBooks to test out different ideas. FreshBooks over the course of the last five years has become the leading Web application startup here in Toronto.

Brian: I notice that people who enjoy these events also have a big presence in the social media space. They don’t just have a Facebook and Twitter account, but they are highly connected and engaged. This applies to both of you as well. Do you think there’s a connection between these two things?

Mark: The Web has always been social, since the Web began. Social media isn’t really that new. But what’s happened is that the tools have become easier to use, more reciprocal and easier to adopt. What’s happening is because anyone can connect with anyone online about something that they care about, when they make a genuine connection about something they have a passion about, they say ‘let’s meet.’ This is happening over and over and over again. So meet ups and Unconferences are part of the same phenomenon, it’s just that a meet up is a lighter weight version.

David: It’s intellectual dating for nerds. That’s what it feels like sometimes.

Mark: Sometimes. The funny thing is it’s also about embracing the nerd within. A lot of people have an interest they can’t share with everybody. So when you want to find like-minded others, the Web facilitates that, and we can come together.

Follow Brian Jackson on Twitter, and he’ll tell you more about Camps.

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