THATCampCologne: lessons learned

On September 24, 2010, in Events, by cornelius

THATCampCologne 2010: ...and done!

Update: here are the (few) photos I took. Let me know if you come across more. For notes on the five sessions we did (in German) see here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Thanks, Anja!

With THATCampCologne now a week behind us, I thought I’d provide a brief report of what happened, what we learned, and what we’ll do next. I’ll do this in English to give campers in the U.S. and elsewhere a very general idea of what the first camp in Germany was like. We’ll probably also write a report in German with focus on a more local audience. As we learned, language is a key issue when planning a camp, a point that I’ll return to.

First a little history. The original thought of organizing a barcamp on technology and humanities issues in Germany came from Robert Forkel from the Max Planck Digital Library in Munich during a conversation on the rooftop of the MPDL’s office in Amalienstrasse. I met Robert in 2008 at the first Public Knowledge Conference in Vancouver and we’ve been in touch since. He’s a mathematician by training, but he’s been involved in projects related to language and e-infrastructures in one way or another for several years now (see here for more on that). He developed the Web version of WALS, which I consider a great example of a virtual research environment for language typologists. Robert couldn’t be in Cologne in the end because of a sports injury, but I’m confident that we’ll get him to do a bootcamp session next year (Python, anyone?).

Robert and I liked the idea of doing a camp, but didn’t really know where to do it. The MPDL and Düsseldorf University didn’t really have an official stake in the Digitale Humanities and we were both unsure whether they would be enthusiastic about this kind of event.

At some point this Spring I was in Cologne at the Hochschulbibliothekszentrum NRW (hbz) where I was working on the elanguage.net Open Access platform. I had lunch with a bunch of guys and luckily for me, one of them was Patrick Sahle. Patrick is a lecturer at the Cologne Center for eHumanities and also a member of the (to me) somewhat mystical Institut für Dokumentologie und Editorik (Institute for Documentology and Scholarly Editing, IDE). A bunch of pretty cool people are members of the IDE, which is a virtual organization and somewhat of a DH think tank from what I gather. They also do some consulting, so you know who to turn to with all your geeky, TEI-related, edition-2.0-needs.

I pitched my idea of a technology and humanities camp to Patrick over a pizza. He loved it and despite having a ton of other projects on his plate he promoted the idea in Cologne and convinced the CCeH to sponsor us. In the end, Patrick did most of the heavy organizational lifting in terms of booking rooms, printing posters, etc. We were both very busy with other stuff in the run-up to the camp and I think in the week before it happened we were both starting to panic a little bit. Less than 30 people had registered through the website and we were unsure how to handle an event with a bunch of strangers and no concise program.

So, how did it turn out? In one word, it was awesome.

Awesome as in if you get the right mix of people together you’ll end up with so many ideas that two days are actually not enough to talk about all of them. And there’s really not much you need to do in your role as organizer other than step aside and let people do their thing. The less you try to control it, the better things work. We didn’t produce a manifesto in the end like they did in Paris and compared to THATCamp Prime or THATCamp London it was probably slower and more relaxed. About 30 people from a range of disciplines (musicology, ethnography, linguistics, history, classics, oriental studies, library & info sciences, computer science) and academic levels (students, phds, postdocs, one full professor) attended. Topics for sessions included XML/TEI, semantic web, visualization, corpus linguistics, language documentation, blogs in teaching, pulling bits of information from Wikipedia and a short presentation on a multi-touchscreen table for scholarly editing that is being developed at the RWTH Aachen. Here are the notes I jotted down during the final brainstorming session:

Bad things
1. Registration unclear/confusing. We never actually told people that they had been accepted after they registered. Duh.
2. Very important: We should have done the whole thing in German from the start. The local DH scence communicates primarily in German; having to write an abstract in English considered work, not fun.
3. Too little activity on the blog/Twitter in the weeks before the camp
4. Earlier mailing of posters.
5. New, (partly) unfamiliar concept of a bar camp (but people liked that, those who attended were sold on the concept).
6. We didn’t talk to people on a local level (at universities in the area) enough.
7. Too conference-like, ban Powerpoint next time (it was allowed).
8. We didn’t have any coffee and the first day took place in a room with no windows. I’m serious. Yeah, **that’s** how much people liked it.

Good things
1. Openness, interdisciplinarity.
2. An opportunity for people with different levels of experience to mingle.
3. Meet people and learn about their work/projects.
4. Pick up little, useful things (R snippet, wikipedia code).
5. Debate issues.
6. Yak.
7. Hack.
8. Great pretzels.

Next time
- Boot Camp! (or as a seperate event?)
- break up into small groups
- do challenges, problem solving/hacking

I know the event was somewhat of a black box in terms of Twitter coverage, but I think that was mostly because we were so busy with chatting in person that we didn’t really find the time to tweet. Patrick should have a list of the participants and we’ll get in touch with everyone once we know what’ll happen next. I’m hoping for a kind of Spring/Fall cycle of camps in Berlin and Cologne, as two campers from Berlin have strong DH affiliations. We’ll see. At any rate, it turned out to a be a tremendous amount of fun and really motivating.

If anyone out there is considering organizing a THATCamp, my only advice to them is to relax and not sweat it. The stuff we did wrong we’ll do right next time, but what the camp is really about is entirely up to the people who show up and make it (literally) happen. All you can do as organizer is to buy snacks (our campers loved fruit, so consider hitting a farmer’s market), get rooms (ideally *with* windows), wireless Internet and a projector. Oh yeah, and coffee.

The rest, incredibly, will just fall into place by itself.

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