I’ve just come back from BuzzConf, and I’m so excited by it that I’ve started writing about it even before my first coffee in the morning.
As a unique blend of conference and festival, BuzzConf was good. Really good.
Set at the Phoenix Park campgrounds, BuzzConf had a sunny and cheerful location that wasn’t too far out of Melbourne, and with pretty darn great facilities. A number of big tents had been erected to act as lecture theatres, as well as providing space for the hackathon. There was a well-equipped stage for musicians and announcements. My tent had both WiFi and power, and there were on-site dorms for those who didn’t wish to camp.
The environment of BuzzConf was a huge factor in making it a success. There was lots of natural light. There was a common outdoor area that was perfect for meeting, dancing, warming oneself by the fire, eating, and everything else. It was easy to not worry about day-to-day things and be in the moment, and because everyone was staying on-site there was a much greater feel of community.
The scheduled talks were also nothing short of amazing. I was honoured to give an opening on future and emerging technologies (slides), and we had outstanding talks by @kathyreid on the human body as a development platform (slides), @auastro on machine learning, and @ErikHallander on disruptive technologies in medicine. I have been to a lot of conferences, and I can say hands down that the talks at BuzzConf were outstanding. In particular, the talks really succeeded in setting a theme. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the future, and—most pleasing for me—many of these conversations had a core theme of what’s the best we can achieve for humanity.
In the evenings we had live music, starting with blues and roots with the likes of Lisa Spykers, and ending with the amazing high-energy Big Fucking Robots that really got people dancing. I’ve seen lots of tech conferences try to get people to dance, but BuzzConf and BFR actually pulled it off.
BuzzConf was an intentionally kids-friendly event, with lots of maker-focused activities for both kids and adults alike, and free attendence for children aged sixteen or under. This is something I’m hugely supportive of, as it’s a big step up for inclusiveness and diversity, and all the kids I saw seemed to be having the best time ever.
So I hope you get the idea that BuzzConf was incredible, which is why I am delighted that it will be happening again next year, and why I’d like to share some of my own thoughts on how to make it even better.
I found the food situation at BuzzConf to be jarring. Rather than being included in the ticket price, food was an additional cost for participants. This would be cool if everyone was strongly encouraged to bring their own, but instead I felt we were encouraged to bring money, leaving most people with little option but to buy captively priced food.
Even though it may be the same cost to participants, I feel that raising the ticket price and having BuzzConf be a fully catered event would have been a much better solution, not just in terms of participants feeling they were getting a good deal, but also a more fair solution for participants on low-income concession tickets.
By all means, charge extra for alcohol and fancy coffee, but unless participants are strongly reminded and encouragred to bring their own food, captively priced food feels wrong.
There are lots of things I don’t like about where hackathons are headed. Rather than being oriented around the joy of creation, or making the world a better place, it feels that the modern hackathon is oriented around competition, themes which overtly advantage the sponsors, judging, and cash prizes. These are themes that don’t encourage collaboration and open sharing, which I feel should be a core theme of not just BuzzConf, but of humanity’s future in general.
I usually don’t participate in these sorts of hackathons, and was very surprised when I was asked to judge the BuzzConf hackathon; especially when I was asked to rate projects on a short timeframe against criteria such as “most futuristic” or “most benefit to the sharing economy”, and which was lacking on criteria like “most good for humanity”.
I think that having a hacking space at conferences is a fantastic idea, but I am much, much more in favour of having a free creative space like the Open Source Bridge hacker lounge, or an intentionally fun and collaborative Take It Back-athon.
Unfortunately, the BuzzConf unconference component didn’t feel like it worked. It was scheduled in a small space, which didn’t have projectors or A/V equipment, and which was in competition with other activities. I didn’t turn up to the unconference component on the second day.
Unconferences are great because they result in lots of participation, but for that to work they need lots of participants, appropriate facilities for presentation and discussion, and a basic skeleton of timeslots to get people started.
I’d be very much in favour of dropping the unconference section of BuzzConf if it’s going to be in competition with other activities.
There are so many things I think would work well at BuzzConf, and almost all of them are oriented around participation. A dedicated (uncontested) slot for lightning talks would be amazing. Encouraging many of the best aspects of Burning Man culture like sharing, theme camps, art, and costumes. Giant writing spaces for people to leave notes and thoughts, decorate, and use as they think best. Extending free or discounted tickets (even if just day passes) to the residents of Ballan, so the local community is able to experience and participate in the event.
But one thing is for sure, I’m very, very impressed with BuzzConf 2015, and I’ll be sure to come back next year!
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