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Making SRCCON Good for Humans

by Erin Kissane

Dials and switches at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, home of SRCCON 2014

In our first year of planning SRCCON, we knew we wanted attendees be able to focus completely on the conference experience itself: sessions, activities, and other official stuff, but also the conversations in hallways and corners that are usually a highlight of gatherings of enthusiastic colleagues. To make that possible, we tried to arrange the SRCCON schedule, space, and life-support systems to be as accommodating and helpful as possible. And to be clear, that’s not the same thing as being fancy. We ran the conference on a nonprofit budget, and nothing we did was geared toward luxury—instead, we tried to just handle the basics thoughtfully so that attendees could relax and enjoy the work and socializing.

To assemble our wish-list of humane elements, we began by collecting our own experiences as frequent conference-goers and event organizers—and as people with widely differing family situations, metabolic needs, and feelings about coffee. And then we started working through the next order of human needs: the ones that none of us had, but that we might expect to encounter in a group the size of SRCCON, and that we’d heard people wish for at other events. Our list will certainly continue to evolve, but here’s our progress report from last year, and the things we’re keeping a close eye on for SRCCON 2015.

Attention & Rhythms

For most people, a successful conference experience is only fractionally about the content of the sessions themselves. “Hallway conversations” are some of our favorite parts of any conference, so we built generous breaks in between sessions, as well as a long morning breakfast with enough real food that people could come straight to the venue in the morning and not starve. We also created a DIY coffee-hacking station in the center of our conference space—in part to ensure access to delicious hot drinks, but also to give attendees a semi-structured way to hang out and do something low-pressure together during breaks, or instead of attending a session during a given schedule block.

Our evening block on the first night of the conference was also about keeping attendees together, but breaking up the kinds of attention they were using. Instead of more sessions about coding and data in newsrooms, people ran cooking skillshares, played tabletop games, did lightning talks, and worked on projects together. And because we expected that folks would keep socializing well into the night, we started sessions at 11am on the second morning out of respect for early-morning zombie feels.

Lastly, we kept organizational affiliation off of the attendee nametags to help people connect in an individual, collegial ways and reduce conversational barriers and assumptions based on affiliation. (No one ever intends to do that kind of social shortcutting, but once sleepy conference-brain kicks in, it’s as hard to ignore as an airport TV, so we did what we could to help nix it.)

Notes for Next Time

Our session length options needed a little tuning, so we’re experimenting with a greater variety of length and format possibilities this year. And on the subtler side, we’ll be paying more attention this year to the culture markers we explicitly endorse as part of the evening events. Plenty of people enjoyed extra-nerdy references in our evening setup, but we also heard from some who found those elements alienating, so we’re thinking through ways of offering nerd-culture options without making people uncomfortable.

Eating & Drinking

We planned the catered meals at SRCCON to be plentiful, varied, reasonably healthy, and friendly to many dietary preferences and restrictions. We also kept snack stations full of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and other protein snacks, and a few sweet things to keep everyone’s energy steady through the day. Our coffee-hacking station complemented catered coffee, tea, and sodas, and we had plenty of water at all times—which is the kind of thing I wish I didn’t need to list, but isn’t always the case at conferences.

On the allergy and dietary preferences tip, we made sure there were hot meals (and even morning doughnuts) that worked for people with gluten intolerances and common food allergies, as well as solid vegetarian and vegan options. SRCCON took place during Ramadan, so we also offered delayed meal options for anyone observing a fast.

When we offered alcohol, we also offered non-alcoholic drinks, and we served food at the same time to make it less likely for anyone to accidentally drink more than they’d intended. After dinner was cleared, we brought in ice cream and held activities throughout the space so that there were plenty of things to do that weren’t drinking-centric.

Finally, the director of events at the Chemical Heritage Foundation was able to connect us with a local shelter organization to make sure untouched food—a liability in any catering scenario—would go to good use and not be wasted.

Notes for Next Time

This year, we plan to include a more serious tea-making operation as well as the coffee-hacking equipment, and to get a little more hardline about labeling on the catered food, some of which had allergen labels and some of which didn’t, just for added peace of mind.

Other Things About Accommodating Embodied Humans

In addition to holding SRCCON in a wheelchair-accessible space, we brought in a live transcription team from White Coat Captioning (about which much more later this week) to livestream captions of three concurrent sessions throughout the event. For parents, we offered a free subscription to SitterCity, a childcare matchmaking service, and a clean, secure space for pumping and nursing. And, of course, we offered a clear code of conduct underpinned by action and safety plans.

Notes for Next Time

This year, we are taking a big step forward on childcare and offering licensed on-site care to all SRCCON attendees in a friendly space at the conference hotel next door, for free. We’ll also post meeting information for local AA chapters and other peer support groups so that it’s easy to find, and we’re absolutely taking the Ada Initiative’s suggestion to use color-coded lanyards to visually mark photo policy preferences.

Onward/Upward

Our goal was to be good enough at meeting basic human needs that people could focus on what they came to SRCCON for: learning together, hanging out with peers and colleagues, and having fun. In our first year of running the conference, we did pretty well, though we came out with a laundry list of things to do better this year.

Notably, none of the specific tasks we took on were particularly challenging, and many weren’t even expensive—they just involved taking the needs of a larger group into consideration when we made initial plans, rather than at the very end of the process (or not at all). For the pieces that did involve greater expense, we found that sponsors were very willing to help us come up with the money to help make SRCCON more accessible and more humane. Maybe most importantly, we learned that taking time up front to be thoughtful about human needs paid tremendous dividends at the event itself in the form of happy, rested, relaxed colleagues.

As always, we thrive on feedback and questions, so please send us a note if you have either one.

posted April 01, 2015 | posted in SRCCON 

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