Having never been to an ‘unconference’ before, much less helped in the organisation of one, I was both intrigued and a little sceptical in the weeks coming up to the Digital Inclusion Unconference, hosted by We Share Stuff on Saturday 23rd Jan.
My experience of conferences, as an attendee and as an organiser, is one of structure, timing and topics. Keeping these three elements in balance – and shepherding the human contingent well enough to do so – is the crux of a successful conference. Or so I thought…
Saturday’s success relied on throwing all these elements up into the air and seeing where they landed. Some minimal structure was provided, mainly in the form of cakes, pastries and coffees, the arrival of which we used to vaguely determine where discussions might start and finish.
As a satellite to the real organisers – Stuart Parker, Jon Bounds and Celeste Small – I’m not sure how much help I was overall but as is the norm for anyone working with WSS, I came away feeling I’d been a crucial member of a crack team of specialists forging our way into the future.
The topic, Digital Inclusion, is also something fairly new to me. It’s only over the last year or so I’ve become properly involved with Birmingham’s and the UK’s technological progress and the people who drive it. Some of the details of the topics addressed went over my head and some I could only relate to on personal terms, using family experiences as examples rather than business related experience, to enable me to join in the conversation.
However, as many of the topics we discussed focused on the digital inclusion of the ordinary, the layperson, I think my half formed notions were still suitable fodder.
The day started with a couple of presentations, from The Resident University, who had kindly sponsored the refreshments. This was followed by another brief presentation and Q&A from Nicky Getgood on hyperlocal data sharing and Talk About Local. Tony Clabby of UnLtd said a few words about his organisation and gave us information on his successor, who sadly was unable to make it on the day, and who will take over once Tony moves over to his new role within the Digbeth Trust.
Having got us on the right track mentally, these presentations eased us nicely into the next bit: deciding the topics we would discuss in sessions throughout the day. Post-its and pens made this easy: We each noted the subjects we wished to debate and stuck them on the wall, along with a time slot preference. Similar themes were grouped together and lo! the rest of the day was sorted. See how quick and fun this was here.
The first session I went to was ‘Defining Digital Inclusion’. This was a key topic that WSS wanted to address and through much friendly debate we reached a general consensus that a clear definition is pretty much impossible. We broke it down, looking not just at the word ‘inclusion’ but also the word ‘digital’.
The term means different things to different people: If you’re involved in the policy side, it will have connotations that your average layperson would probably never even think about; If you’re involved in accessibility, it will have different connotations to those involved in, say, marketing (although arguably, it shouldn’t).
Session two for me was ‘What makes a Digital Mentor?’. I was fascinated to realise that I’d been a digital mentor for most of my working life, without knowing it. Giving tips & hints on commonly used business applications to colleagues, friends and family; ‘teaching by stealth’ through tutoring people with no computer experience how to write letters, CVs and keep records; being the go-to-girl for minor hardware issues in offices where staff were reluctant to bother the IT department for something small. All of these things boil down to passing on not just knowledge but confidence and understanding.
We Share Stuff are actively looking for people to join them as a Digital Mentor. Before Saturday, I thought that couldn’t possibly be me. Now I see that I’m an ideal person for that role. If you want to learn more about becoming a Digital Mentor, follow this link to find out more!
Lunch was not provided, on the grounds that a bit of fresh air and a break away from all the intense thinking would do us all good. Returning after lunch we headed straight into the afternoon sessions. First up for me was a joint topic ‘Developing Creative Content’ and the introduction of a pilot project taking place in Kent that I’m not sure I can yet mention in the public sphere. We discussed issues of hyperlocal information sharing and how this might work in conjunction with revenue based physical businesses. I don’t think we reached a consensus on that topic but that’s not surprising. It’s a hard one to nail down definitively, given the wide parameters.
Lastly, a discussion on Open Source, er, stuff. My (obvious) lack of knowledge on this matter was the reason I wanted to attend this session and I came away knowing a lot more about why it doesn’t get used as much as it could and some serious thinking to do on how the current status quo – the culturally embedded proprietary software we all know and love – might be beneficially rocked.
Here’s a full list of the sessions throughout the day:
Morning 1: Session A: Defining Digital Inclusion / stuff ‘Digital Britain’ what does real inclusion & engagement mean?
Morning 1: Session B: Digital Communities / Reaching those without access / Digital inclusion of African communities
Morning 2: Session A: Engaging the younger generation / Using social media to attract interest of young people in libraries / NEETs – the motivation issues.
Morning 2: Session B: What makes a good digital mentor? / Butterfly project – encouraging tech by young social entrepreneurs
Afternoon1: Session A: The community info portal – suggested apps
Afternoon 1: Session B: Blogs / Websites and accessibility / Disability
Afternoon 2: Session A: Digital Inclusion book list / forming of a book club
Afternoon 2: Session B: Open source, how to promote, issues, relevance in digital inclusion
Overall it was a highly informative and interesting day. I met a lot of people I would never ordinarily meet and, due to the informal vibe, forged stronger and friendlier links with some that would not have been achieved at a more formal conference or networking event. The lack of structure and pre-decided subjects meant that each of us got a say in what we discussed. Much preferable to my mind than an organised-to-death conference that proscribes the topics and may be seeking a particular outcome.
Rounding the day off, we joined another local group having a comprehensive ‘debrief’ of the recent Hackitude event at the nearby Spotted Dog for a post-unconference drink or seven. (Thanks Aquila, Moxypark et al).
Thanks again to Jon and Stuart for involving me in the run up and the unconference itself. Also thanks to everyone who attended – you’ve opened my eyes to elements of the Digital Inclusion debate that I’d never even considered and were instrumental in creating the friendly and informal yet highly productive vibe of the day. That alone has done more for my motivation and interest than any number of formal conferences and death-by-powerpoint experiences ever will.
PS: I’ll add some more relevant links here for you later this week