This one time, at BarCamp . . .

The crowds and the media coverage won’t compare with Live8, but an event with some similarities to the simultaneous round-the-world aid concerts will take place in August. It’s called BarCamp Earth, and those attending will be software developers and others with an interest in information technology who want an alternative to the traditional industry conferences.

Scheduled for August 26 to 28, BarCamp Earth will mark the first anniversary of the original BarCamp, held in California last year. Since then, BarCamps and similar events with names like DemoCamp, OSCamp and CopyCamp have cropped up. The whole genre is sometimes referred to as “un-conferences,” because while they are like regular computing events in some respects, these events are far less formal and less commercial.

The idea of BarCamp Earth is simply to hold many BarCamps in different cities around the world, loosely linked through blogs and podcasts.

“Often at tech conferences there’s as much talent in the audience as there is on the stage,” explains David Crow, director of product management at Ambient Vector in Toronto and a pioneer of BarCamps and DemoCamps in that city.

“I think one of the dirty secrets of computer conferences is that most of the learning isn’t done in the seminars you pay for but in hotel lobbies and hallways,” adds Joey deVilla, another Toronto BarCamp and DemoCamp organizer.

BarCamps aim to erase the line between presenters and audience. Some require that every attendee come prepared to give a presentation. Some events are less strict about this rule than others, but the ethic of all un-conference events is participation. “It’s not really just about attending, it’s about participating,” says Andre Charland, president of in Vancouver and an organizer of BarCamp Vancouver, which is scheduled to take place in conjunction with BarCamp Earth in late August.

In sharp contrast to major trade shows and conferences — where attendees sometimes feel like sheep being herded through registration lineups and into conference rooms with staff swiping bar-code readers over their badges at every turn — un-conferences involve little advance planning.

“We find that our events are actually better the less we plan them,” observes Bryce Johnson, director of user experience design at Navantis Inc. in Toronto and one of the core group of organizers of Toronto’s BarCamps and DemoCamps. 

“We as organizers do almost nothing other than find a room for people to be in,” adds Jay Goldman, another Toronto organizer.

There were almost 50 people at the first Toronto BarCamp, with subsequent Toronto events growing to more than 100 attendees. BarCamp Vancouver already has 50 people registered only a few days after opening registration, and will limit attendance to 100, Charland says.

When attendees show up at a BarCamp, they typically find a big chart or grid on a wall. It is divided into squares representing time slots and rooms – some BarCamps have multiple rooms so several presentations can go on at once. Participants write their names and what they are prepared to talk about on the grid, and the conference schedule is born.

Apart from giveaways like T-shirts and mugs that are often given to all participants in these events, speakers receive no compensation. “The only reward they got was the fame and a mug,” says Jason Diceman, co-manager of DrupalCampToronto, a BarCamp-like event held in May with a focus on the Drupal content management engine. 

Active participation in the sessions is encouraged, and attendees are encouraged to drift from session to session if they wish.

With everyone – or almost everyone – giving presentations, naturally some sessions are better than others. “There’s usually a lot of mediocre sessions and one or two great ones,” says Philip Smith, simplifier of technology at Community Bandwidth in Toronto, who has attended several un-conferences and helped organize DrupalCampToronto.

“You can get some surprisingly good speakers and topics that are of broad value,” Charland says.

DemoCamps are similar to BarCamps in that they are informal, but they are shorter events focused on demonstrations. Each Toronto DemoCamp involved five demos of 10 to 15 minutes each. No PowerPoint presentations are allowed.

Most un-conference events either are free to participants or use a pay-what-you-can format in which people are asked to contribute something to the cost of space and refreshments. Some DemoCamps are held in rooms that restaurants or bars provide free of charge, with participants ordering and paying for any food or drink they want, Goldman explains.

To help cover costs, BarCamps often depend on sponsorships, but the sponsors tend to be small, local companies. At Toronto BarCamps, no one sponsor may contribute more than $250. That can be an obstacle, Goldman admits – some companies actually want to support the events but have no mechanism for donating such a small sum – but the organizers say the rule is important to keep the events from getting too commercialized.

Crow says un-conferences are similar to user group meetings, except that user groups are usually organized around specific hardware or software, whereas these events have a broader scope. 

And where does the name BarCamp come from? Not from the events being held in bars, as you might suspect, though discussion over a few beers can be part of the experience.

It started when Tim O’Reilly, founder and chief executive of computer book publisher O’Reilly Media in Sebastopol, Calif., began running informal conferences that resemble BarCamps except that they are invitation-only events. O’Reilly calls these Friends of O’Reilly Camps, or FooCamps. Last year, a group in California decided to stage an event that was like FooCamp, except that it would be first come first served instead of by invitation. Programmers often use “foo” and “bar” as random names, a reference to the acronym FUBAR, the last four letters of which stand for “up beyond all recognition.” So naturally, the organizers of the first open FooCamp-like event called it BarCamp.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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