Coming August 11, 2009

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Organizing THATCamp Austin

We’d like to share our experience organizing THATCamp Austin with people interested in putting on their own regional THATCamps.  I’m not sure we know enough to put together an authoritative how-to, but we can certainly explain what we did.

Organizers: We had four talented co-organizers who volunteered their time.  Ben and Peter live in Austin, while Lisa and Jeanne are in Maryland but were attending SAA.  As you see in the timeline, there was plenty of work for the off-site organizers to do.  Each of us have full-time jobs and children aged between 3 and 6, so most of the work was done late at night or early in the morning.

Budget: $845 (around $490 for shirts, ca. $300 for pizza, remainder spent on office supplies, web hosting, and postage).  Initially we planned to fund our costs by asking participants to contribute around $20, but we were able to get commitments for as much as $900 from our sponsors in the week before the event.

Participants: We counted about 50 participants at 7:00.  A majority of them were attending SAA, and only 20 hands went up when we asked how many would have attended THATCamp Austin if they weren’t attending SAA.

Tools: We used WordPress for the blog, Google Docs for the applicant spreadsheet, Doodle for the timing survey, Google Groups for both the planner mailing list and application tracking, and a GMail account for correspondence.

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Suggestions for regional THATCamps

THATCamp Austin was the first regional THATCamp, but at least two more are being planned before the end of the year.  We’re trying to put together an account of how we organized the Austin event to pass along to those organizers and we need your help.  If you participated in THATCamp Austin or followed it online, please leave a comment with ideas for improving it.

So far, participants have given me these suggestions:

  • Explain how sessions will be scheduled in advance. The unconference format is new to most people, and models for scheduling sessions vary from BarCamp to OpenSpace to THATCamp.  If we had explained the need to combine session ideas into presentations, or what DorkShorts was, participants could have spent more time making those combinations themselves, and we might have spent less time at the scheduling session.
  • Post answers to applicant questions on the blog. Some participants told me that my post about what to prepare was extremely helpful.  That post was a public reply to a question I’d gotten from a participant.  The only other similar question I got was about how the scheduling process worked.  If I’d posted that answer to the blog as well, it would have addressed the previous point.
  • Four hours is too short. We only had two slots for sessions, and because we started so late in the day, our hack-fest/bonus sessions ended up adjourning immediately to a bar.
  • Ten days to discuss session ideas is too short. New session ideas were being posted in the hour before THATCamp Austin began, and really didn’t get a hearing in the scheduling process.  Some participants suggested that with a longer lead time–perhaps involving a deadline for schedule ideas–the entire scheduling process could happen on-blog, and we could have skipped the half hour spent arranging a schedule at the conference.
  • Participants were insufficiently diverse. Because we scheduled THATCamp Austin for SAA, we had a large pool of digitally-minded archivists to draw from.  However, probably two-thirds of participants were archivists, and discussions tended to be archives-heavy.  I remember hearing inclusive “we” equated with university faculty a couple of times at THATCamp 2008 — I heard it equated with archivists a lot at THATCamp Austin.  If we’d had more than 20 days from announcement to event and if we’d publicized more aggressively among the Central Texas DH community, we might have achieved more balance.

What other advice we should pass along?



Half of the fun of an unconference is in watching and participating in the backchannel discussion.  While we don’t have a back-back-channel like some conferences, we’re off to a pretty good start with these:

  • Twitter: We’ll be using the hashtag #thatcamp to identify our tweets and scour the net for other folks who like to weigh in.  Those tweets will be archived at Twapper Keeper.
  • Wiki: The THATCamp wiki is ready to go.  Put your links, your notes, your photos, and anything else you can think of in it.  The THATCamp09 page provides a good example.
  • IRC: There is a #thatcamp channel on  ChatZilla and Pidgin are both decent IRC clients.  Type /j #thatcamp at the prompt once you’re in.

We haven’t made any plans for A/V recording, but if you’ve got equipment to set up, you’re welcome to bring it.

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Hack Fest/Bonus Sessions

THATCamp Austin is officially over at 10:00 PM on Tuesday night, but you don’t have to go home right then. While some campers will be heading to the Dog and Duck Pub for a libation and others will start their trek to the SAA hotel, any souls brave enough are welcome to hang around Mezes Hall for the Hack Fest and Bonus Sessions.

We’ll all be kicked out of the auditorium at 10, but we can keep going in the three classrooms until Peter starts to yawn.  I suggest that we hold a hack fest in the larger room and put bonus sessions in the two others.  For the hack fest, bring a problem you’re trying to solve:  I’ll bet that we’ll have some software gurus to help out on technical problems, and I hope that we’ll have folks willing to help out with purely humanistic problems.  (I’ve got a problem that’s probably fairly basic for an archivist, so this may be a selfish wish.)  The bonus sessions can be anything we didn’t have time for in the two main slots — perhaps you didn’t get to discuss a topic, or spent your DorkShorts demo fighting with laptop dongles.  Maybe there was a great topic you’d like to revisit.  We could put sign-up sheets outside the doors at 10, letting people organize then.

These are just half-baked ideas for what to do with the space while we have it, not a schedule or a program.  What do you think?

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What to Prepare for your Demo

Mike Rush asked the organizer list, “What’s protocol re: PPT? Should I have slides prepared for my talk or is winging a live demo acceptable?” I responded to him via e-mail, and he encouraged me to post my response on the blog:

Regarding talks, I can only speak from my own limited experience. I never spotted a single slide deck at THATCamp 2008, perhaps outside of the DorkShorts. I think that in general people winged it in the sessions, and had something at least halfway-rehearsed at DorkShorts, lest they spend their entire 3-minute slot fighting with wireless connections and video adapters.

At the crowdsourcing transcription/annotation session I presented at, the other person with something to demo and I arrived in the room a bit ahead of time to figure out how to connect our laptops. Once the session started, our organizer turned the floor over to me to lay out some background on existing tools. I then spent about 10 or 15 minutes running through a demo of my software, with frequent interruptions and suggestions from the other participants. The other developer spent a bit more time on his demo because his software was more mature, his interruptions were more frequent, and also because we were all interested in some of the details of how he’d implemented overlapping markup. A general discussion followed which included folks hooking their laptops up to demo how some commercial packages handled visualizing document transcription.

At Dork Shorts (one of three Dork Short sessions we had that year), I had prepared a 5-minute introduction to GraphViz, which included an intro to the dot language, a well-prepared demo of generating dot by parsing a static TEI document, and a blink-and-you-miss-it display of how I’m using dot/GraphViz to visualize dynamic data within my own software. Because that session was lightly attended, I got to interact with the other participants more than I anticipate for THATCamp Austin. For this event, I plan to prepare a solid 5-minute demo, in the event that I get to demo at DorkShorts but don’t get to demo at a regular session.

None of this should be interpreted as prescriptive, however — it’s always hard to figure out how representative your own experience is, or how helpful it might be when transmuted into advice.

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Crowdsourcing Scholarly Work

I’d like to be part of a session on crowdsourcing work that has traditionally been led by scholars in an institutional setting.  My own effort along these lines has been FromThePage, a web-based tool for transcribing and annotating  handwritten manuscripts.

I demoed FromThePage at THATCamp 2008 while it was still under development, in private alpha.  At the beginning of this year, I started editing a transcription project in earnest and gained some passionate and talented users. These users have transcribed hundreds of pages, researched subjects mentioned within the texts, and even tracked down and scanned lost documents.  At the same time, however, I’ve discovered that many of the anonymous viewers of the site are actually researching the same subjects that I am.  Since even a passing comment can add valuable insights, I would love to be able to engage these fellow researchers, connect with them and draw upon what they know.

Would anyone be interested in a session on crowdsourcing; discussing how to motivate volunteers and engage with the online public to produce high-quality work?

Other conversations I’d like to have at THATCamp Austin are:

  • How to integrate with standard exhibit management systems like ContentDM or Omeka, and whether OAI-PMH or OAI-ORE are at all useful for that.
  • How to mine genealogy and census databases to identify connections between people in historic documents.  (Sometimes this goal is described as a “FaceBook of the Dead”.)
  • How to get from project to product — when a piece of software is good enough for in-house use, how much more needs to be done to fit it for release as OSS?


THATCamp Austin Still Has Room

We still have room for about a dozen more people at THATCamp Austin this year.  If you’ve got an idea and are willing to take your chances on leftover T-shirts, please send us an application.

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