Reflections on OpenCon 2017

This past weekend I had the privilege this of attending OpenCon 2017 in Berlin, as a first-timer, after three years of failed application attempts. If you are not familiar with OpenCon, it is an event started in 2014 put together by an organization called SPARC with the goal of using the event as a springboard to building a community of open advocates. The event is described as covering “Open Access, Open Educational, and Open Data”, here I collect these topics under the diminutive open. However, this description doesn’t really do OpenCon justice. OpenCon is so much more than a conference, workshop, colloquium, or whatever name for a gathering of people attracts funding these days. The event is truly one that is difficult to describe. I think this may be in part because the open community itself is such a unique collection of individuals. As I came to learn/reaffirm while attending OpenCon, the community is made up of committed, passionate, diverse (more on this later), intelligent, hard-working, reflective, passionate, supportive, critical (in a good way), caring, talented, and, —did I mention passionate?— individuals.

The Harnack-Haus

Exterior photograph of the Harnack-Haus located in Berlin, Germany

If you want to inspire creativity among talented individuals at an event, step one might be to host it at an inspiring venue. The Harnack-Haus, a site of the Max Planck Society, is just that. The building was constructed in 1929 according to the history of the facility to serve as a venue for scientists. Further, according to the site, it has hosted 35 Nobel Prize winners including Einstein, Planck, Krebs, and Lorenz among others. It was quite the opportunity for me to spend so much time in such a historic place.

Not afraid to experiment

One really cool aspect of OpenCon is that SPARC has purposefully designed it to be experimental in nature. Each year they incorporate new components derived from the community or the organizing committee. As with anything experimental, sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. Luckily the community is adept at self-assessment and is willing to take a critical look at how things turned out, even if it means admitting that they/we made a mistake. This year included a new project work day, called a do-a-thon, as well as a semi-organized social piece called dine-arounds. I thought that the do-a-thon worked really well and I want to talk about that a little more below, the dine-arounds didn’t quite work out as hoped. Turns out that organizing group dinners in largish groups and keeping those plans held together as people commute from one part of the city to another is rather challenging.

Doing the work

While I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of the structure and organization of OpenCon, I have to say that my favorite part by far was the do-a-thon. Briefly, the basic idea was that OpenCon attendees and people not attending in-person (the main event panels and talks are live-streamed so many people participate remotely) could submit project ideas in advance and then time would be dedicated on day three of the event to work on these projects and try to actually get some stuff done. Personally, I’ve attended so many conferences where you meet great people and make plans for cool collaborations only to lose that motivation once you get home and normal work/life commitments get in the way. The do-a-thon, in contrast, provided a dedicated working day during the time we already had set aside for the conference to start new projects or make progress on existing ones and maybe most importantly get help from some of those creative, talented people I’ve been mentioning.

In sum there were ~70 projects submitted for the do-a-thon covering an extremely wide variety of subjects and modalities. This is a lot of options and possibilities to cover in just one day but that was OK. It was recognized and understood that participants may be interested in more than one project and want to bounce around trying a few before maybe finding one they wanted to dedicate a little more time to.

Personally, I submitted a project called “Engineering: The Book”, basically an idea to develop a open educational resource in the form of a textbook (of sorts) that could be used in an introductory engineering course. This is a project that I actually started about a year ago. By “started” I mean that I initiated a Github repo and then didn’t really get any further with it. For the purposes of the do-a-thon, I defined three main issues I wanted to try to tackle:

  1. Identify and evaluate possible authoring environments
  2. Develop a table of contents based on what we find in existing introductory engineering curriculum
  3. Identify possible sources for content that can be incorporated or adapted

So where did we end up on these three initiatives? During the do-a-thon I had significant help from two great individuals Hector D Orozco Perez and Rebecca Orozco, as well as some contributions from Charles Haas (remotely). Between the three of us, we got a start on fleshing out our ideas on item 1, nearly completed item 2, and got a start on item 3. Overall I’m quite happy with how this turned out. It gives me a bit of a baseline to work from and provides some motivation to continue working on it. Further, with luck, others from the OpenCon community will stay interested as well and check back in on the project and contribute further at a later date. Even if they don’t, these outcomes are already light years ahead of the average academic conference!

Diverse perspectives yield better outcomes

One of the commonalities that holds true in basically any type of work, community, project, etc. is that the best outcomes can be achieved by ensuring that the participants come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. In the open community, the challenges that the community is trying to tackle are so complicated that not having a diversity of perspectives would be a real detriment to the progress of the movement as a whole. In many circumstances, the open movement feels like activism and it often is. The work of scholarship and education have such profound implications and equally profound barriers that it is hard not to view this work as activism. In many cases, an individual’s open access to resources, materials, published works, etc. can mean the difference between gaining an education or not, providing for their family or not, or having equal opportunities to do their work alongside their more privileged peers.

This year, OpenCon featured 186 in-person participants from 66 countries, including representation from six continents. SPARC and the OpenCon organizing committee puts a real emphasis on bringing together a diverse community. Part of this is a critical evaluation of the applicants with an eye for diversity balance. They received more than 13,000 (!) applications this year and intentionally try to limit the size of the event to make it manageable and to keep the budget reasonable. In part, in order to build a diverse attendee population requires significant financial investment to ensure that nobody is left out purely due to financial limitations. In a world where financial limitations can so severely block participation for many groups of people, this is an admirable effort. Academic conferences are generally terrible at this.

What turned out to be one of the most inspiring sessions of OpenCon was the panel discussion on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion taking place at the end of day 2. With presentations and insights from several brave and empowering individuals, this session is well worth a watch.

So, what’s next?

I don’t know exactly. I think I still need a little more time to digest the breadth of information consumed and to allow for the excitement from the event to calm down, revealing the true personal connections that will remain and last. Step 1 might be deciding if I will apply to attend OpenCon again. I have mixed feelings on this in that one on hand, OpenCon was incredibly powerful and motivating and I think I still have more to offer. On the other hand, now that I have had the opportunity to attend, perhaps I should make way for others and allow them to become fellow OpenCon alumni. While I ruminate on that decision, a few clear opportunities exist for things I’d like to follow up on in the near term:

  1. Continue working on the open engineering textbook idea and make use of the great progress we made at the do-a-thon.
  2. Identify regional partners to discuss organizing an OpenCon satellite event in Minneapolis. I met two local partners while at OpenCon and I think we can identify others to begin working out some logistics for this to be possible.
  3. I will become eligible for a sabbatical shortly. I would like to be able to use this opportunity to advance some of my efforts in open engineering. For this to be possible, I need to solidify my plans and start exploring options for funding.

Want to be a part of it?