Mixing curation and crowdsourcing in skeptic event planning

Neil Degrasse Tyson at TAM9

Neil deGrasse Tyson at TAM9 by Jamie Bernstein, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

As the annual schedule of skeptic and freethought events continues to expand, there’s more variation and experimentation going on. Specifically, some skeptic conferences are mixing old and new techniques in creating their schedule of events. They’re combining old-school curation with newer crowdsourcing techniques.

Traditional skeptic conferences – those run by CFI, JREF and so on – have been heavily curated affairs. The sponsoring organization and planning committee have complete control over all content presented, which is sometimes planned up to a year in advance. One slight exception are the Sunday Papers at The Amazing Meeting, which has an open submission process with an approval committee.

In 2007 my friend Reed Esau broke the mold by bringing the “unconference” model (from the world of high-tech) to skeptic events, and Skepticamp was born. These events solicit all their presentations from attendees, and only lightly curate the content (if at all). This idea was borrowed from the high tech world where the constant need for new knowledge and skills transfer did not fit well with the curated model. (The high-tech prototype for Skepticamp was called Barcamp). Reed’s idea has been very successful – there have been 84 events held since the first one in 2007, and they’ve been held all over the world.

Now in 2014, several skeptic/secular events are starting to experiment in other ways. Find how after the jump.

Skepticamp within a larger event

Several groups have experimented with having a Skepticamp event in conjunction with another larger event. The first group to do this was the Edinburgh Skeptics, who had their Skepticamps (2009 – 2012) right at the start of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Starting in 2010 it became the lead-in event to their own Skeptics on the Fringe series held as part of the Fringe. The New Zealand skeptics also put on a Skepticamp on the day before their national convention in 2013.

SkeptiCamp Madrid 2012

SkeptiCamp Madrid 2012, courtesy SkeptiCamp wiki

The most recent to do this was QED in Manchester, England in April. That paid event set aside the Friday of the conference weekend, in one of the rooms they had reserved at their venue. They recruited the staff of The Pod Delusion podcast to run a Skepticamp in that room. The Skepticamp was open to all – a paid ticket to the main event was not required.

Thus the strengths of the Skepticamp model (low cost or free, younger/fresher speakers addressing lesser-known topics, only light curation if any) were paired with the advantages of a major annual event (publicity, large venue, people coming from out-of-town and easy access to hotel rooms).  By all accounts The Pod Delusion’s Skepticamp (only the second one in England) was a huge success and a great way to kick off a skeptic convention weekend.

Open Workshop Proposals

In the last few weeks I’ve seen two different events scheduled for this fall already adopting another hybrid approach to their workshops. Many conferences hold workshops of some kind immediately prior or subsequent to the formal proceedings. Often these are extra cost optional tickets (as at TAM and CSICON), but are usually less heavily attended due to travel constraints for out-of-town attendees. And so they may seem like a burden to some event organizers.

Workshop at SkeptiCal 2014

SkeptiCal 2014 photo by Susan Gerbic

To lighten that burden, Apostacon 2014 (coming up September 19-21 in Omaha) posted an online submission form and invited the general public to submit workshop ideas to be run by the submitter. (The deadline was this past Friday). Skepticon 7 (coming November 21-23 in Springfield, Missiouri) is doing the same thing – their slate of Friday workshops will be filled at least in part by proposals submitted by an online form.  That proposal process is still open.

Jill Fitzgerald of the Apostacon committee told me their rationale was to “give participants more for their money and get some of [the] favorite speakers the ability to come without repeating speakers from last year.” They received about the number of proposals they expected, and won’t be able to accept them all due to space limitations. She added “We are really excited about the quality of the proposals.”

Both of these methods – a full day Skepticamp or user-proposed workshops – allow the attendees to have a role in determining the topics that will be covered at an event. This provides a great way to compensate for potential “blind spots” on the organizing committee and to spread out the work load, while making your event more engaging.

Other Ideas

There are two other ideas, also originating in the world of high-tech conferences, that can help fortify your event schedule while not adding too much work for the organizing committee. I’d like to see these adopted by skeptic events.

Birds of a Feather (BOF) sessions – These encourage attendees to self-schedule sessions for unstructured meetings with fellow attendees around specific topics. Usually signup sheets are provided on site – but they can also be done online. All that is needed is a way for organizers to list a topic, choose a location to gather, and for others to add their name & express interest. Session creators up take on the responsibility of publicizing each gathering during the event – via social media and so on.

Some conventions run these in their track programming rooms after hours, as an alternative to evening entertainment options. Others such as the blogging conference BlogHer schedule these during breaks and meal times, which is a brilliant way to do it without impacting the conference schedule. The 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (going on this week) also added BOFs this year with signups via a Wiki. These ad-hoc gatherings are great opportunities for networking around a topic or activist organizing.

Lightning Talks – Everyone has their favorite story of PowerPoint abuse at a conference, or simply a speaker who went on for too long. And frankly, there are some topics that maybe don’t merit a full hour. As a place for the latter (and as an antidote to the former) some events block out a session for several speakers to present very short topics sequentially. There are also highly constrained versions (featuring strict time limits & slide counts) called Pecha Kucha and Ignite that could be used. The latter has seen some skeptic experimentation – Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics did a presentation at Ignite Liverpool.

I’m intrigued by these short presentation formats and would love to see them applied to skepticism. Like Skepticamp, they could be a great way to introduce less experienced speakers and lesser-known topics to a wider audience. The limited length should reduce reluctance on the part of first-time presenters, and reduce risk to organizers. I’m investigating the possibility of curating a batch of these at Dragon*Con Skeptrack – if you are planning to attend and are interested, contact me.


I know some event curators might approach new techniques like this with much trepidation – perhaps fearful they would result in a drop in overall quality. However, each of these four ideas have features which limit the danger of that. Skepticamp guidelines strongly encourage audience questions and interaction during talks – so the audience can practice their skeptical skills. Workshop and paper proposals are still reviewed and approved by the convention committee. BOF sessions are small and face-to-face, and can be done with no impact on programming space. And the short length of lightning talks insures that any poorly prepared speaker is off the stage quickly (strictly enforced by the format in the case of Pecha Kucha or Ignite).

So there are four ideas – two of which have already been successfully tried – for jazzing up the programming mix at your skeptic event.  What other ideas have you seen? Let’s hear them in the comments.

Thanks to Reed Esau who reviewed an draft of this post.

2 thoughts on “Mixing curation and crowdsourcing in skeptic event planning

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