… UK GovCamp 2012

January 24, 2012 at 2:23 pm 3 comments

(This post has sod-all to do with toilets, but this is where I blog, so..)

I went to UK GovCamp 2012. It was last Friday. People have been posting their Top 20 things that they took from the experience. This seems like a good exercise to make sense of it all. I’ll do 10, cause I ramble.

A bit about what UK Gov Camp is..

UKGovCamp 2012 is an event organised by enthusiastic people. It’s loosely described as being an (un)conference for people working in Government and IT.

I don’t work in either. 

I’ve also seen it described as ‘Public Sector and Technology’, which I prefer as ‘public sector service design’ we touch on through our people-centred design work at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. ‘Tech’ rather than IT also feels more open, as this covers community forums and online networks and the way that the internet can aid communication and help communities become more inclusive. ‘IT’ sounds like a conference exclusively for web managers and people who program. 

It’s an un-conference because there’s no agenda or speakers or abstract submission or registration fee. At the start of the day, people (anyone who wants to, which ends up being about a third of the attendees) announce something they’d like to talk about, which is then assigned to a time and a room. In these rooms, people interested talk about things. 

1. Go, even if you don’t know what it is. 

I went this year because I went last year.

I went last year because my twitter feed (lots of local government people and open data enthusiasts, because of my public toilet mapping) were getting REALLY excited about it. There were only 3 tickets left, so after frantically running round the internet going ‘but what the crap IS IT?’ I signed up feeling like a bit of a fraud.

It turned out to be useful, but even if it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered – there are 200 people, so no one will notice you if you don’t want them too.

2.  If you think someone should be at ukgovcamp – invite them.

Sending general tweets (“hey people interested in this! – come to this!”) is good, but it’s an advert, not an invite. “I’m interested in that, but do they really mean me? Or do they really mean them? Yes, they mean them, because they know them and they work together. They don’t mean me. It’d be weird if I went.”

Writing exactly the same tweet but with an @mention at the front is an invite, and makes a world of difference. It also means that that person will know at least one other person, which eases any worries about who you’re gonna eat lunch with.

Some people are not on twitter. But they’re probably on email.

Some people would like more elected representatives. If someone isn’t there, did they know about it? And did they know why you think they should be there? Did anyone invite them?

3.Don’t worry about who you’re going to eat lunch with.

Yes a lot of people know each other, but a lot also turn up alone. Hunt them out and sit down beside them. If conversation falters, pretend to go to the loo.

5. Introductions are vital

At the start of the conference, everyone stands up and says who the are and where they’re from. With 200 people this takes a long time, yet this may be the most useful part of the day for me. If I listen hard to the names I can recognise lots from my twitter. I also picked out a couple of randoms that I thought ‘ooh! They’re here! It’d be nice to hear what they think.” (someone from Lambeth council, someone from Engine). I never did; everyone quickly looks the same, but thanks to the attendee list on Eventbrite at least I can look them up and follow them on Twitter.

It’d also be useful to do introductions in the sessions.

The most useful thing I got from last year’s GovCamp was meeting Janet Hughes from the GLA and getting more involved in their investigation and recommendations for London’s public toilets. That wouldn’t have happened if the open data session I was in hadn’t had us all introduce ourselves.

There are always more people in a session than there is time or opportunities for people to speak. I’ve no idea who half the people in any session are or why they’re there (and vice-versa).

Some sessions are too big for this, and some are small enough not to need it, but it would have been nice if it had happened once.

6. Get a seat at the table. 


Each session I went to was already quite full and I was sat on the carpet. This reduces the likelihood of my saying anything (or even listening) by about 200%. The one time I was sat at a table – because I forgot that Room 1 was the auditorium, not the one labelled ‘Room 1’ – I had a nice chat with Glen Ocsko who had made the same mistake.

7. A nice chat is better than a session

I don’t think I take much from the sessions at all. I get inspired by conversations that I’m involved in, but I’m crap at saying anything in a session that involves more than, say, 2 people. Dane Wright formerly of Brent Council came over to talk to me in a break about his views of the GLA’s open data standard for public toilets and this was a far more useful 3-minute conversation than any of the sessions that I listened to (I recognised him from the session last year where everyone introduced themselves..).

It’s also just nice to meet people that you know ‘off of the internet’, to acknowledge that you do. I don’t think you have to meet people off the internet to make an online connection more valid, however my constant worry is that just because I read and enjoy every post someone ever makes, do they know I exist? Even if they follow me, or once @mention-ed me, do they remember me? Which are the real links and which are in my head?

So it was nice to meet / talk to @glenocsko, @tom_chance, @puntofisso, @iamadonut. I enjoy your tweets.

It was also nice to say hello to people I’ve met before, and meet new ones – the people I sat next to at lunch, the man next to me in the auditorium, the guy I talked to on the way in, and the lady from teacamp who talked to me in the ladies. Thanks.

And @welovelocalgov, whoever you are.

8. It doesn’t matter if you don’t go

It was a nice day. I learnt stuff and listened to some interesting conversations, particularly about neighbourhood democracy and participation, something that we’re about to start a project on. I now know of a few more people who work in the same field, who’s blogs I can follow and hopefully talk to and swap notes at a later date.

If I hadn’t gone to ukgovcamp, I’d probably have found them anyway, not least from reading the posts about ukgovcamp. I go to ukgovcamp because I like it, not because I need to. This is another difference between unconferences and conferences.


9. I’d pay for ukgovcamp.

I wondered whether free events could ask people to pay afterwards however much they think it was worth. I went to an Open Data Masterclass, another free thing that I signed up for on Eventbrite to find out what it was, and it was incredibly useful, more so than most conferences with a £200 registration fee.

Unconferences need to stay free – how do you know if something is of value to you until you’ve been? – but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a value in hindsight.

I imagine, compared to the amount raised from sponsorship, that my £30 wouldn’t go far, but it’s the thought that counts.

10. Don’t make comments about UK GovCamp unless you’re prepared to do something yourself.

Dave Briggs and Steph Gray organise UK GovCamp for.. fun? perhaps? I don’t know, but without them it wouldn’t happen. So commenting about an event, whether neutral or negative, without being prepared to do something yourself seems pathetically ungrateful compared to the effort that they and others put in to create it.

So if I get frustrated that there aren’t more designers at ukgovcamp, then I should 2. Invite them.

If I wish people would 5. do introductions in sessions then I should suggest it in the session.

And if I wish that people who are struggling to make data useful or improve public services or communicate with their neighbourhoods would talk more about design and the people they’re designing for, then I should 6. Get a seat at the table and talk about people-centred design and how passionate I am about it.

I guess that’s what I’ve taken from UKGovCamp.

  • Invite people to things they might like
  • Introduce myself to those I’d like to know


  • find practical ways to bridge the gap between design and the public sector.

Entry filed under: Politics. Tags: , .

… the High Street … ?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Simon Whitehouse  |  January 24, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Ah guilty

    On Friday I ran a session and forgot to go round the table for introductions. I was twenty minutes in before I realised and got everybody to say who they were.

    I was also in a session where I noticed early on that if I raised my hand the person running the session would make sure I’d have a chance to speak. It immediately made me more relaxed.

    I suppose one of the things with an unconference is that any of us can run a session and we’re not all skilled at doing it. I’ve seen sessions hijacked by the most vocal people in the room and that is frustrating.

    So, taking your advice, in future I will remember to do introductions in future when I run a session.

    Thanks for the post. Gov Camp was fun wasn’t it?

    • 2. Gail Knight  |  January 25, 2012 at 10:12 am

      At least you thought of it! Took me 3 days to realise just what a difference that could make to my govcamp experience.

      The hand-raising (or in the auditorium, needing the mic to speak) was probably the better way to facilitate, yes. I thought that by the time I was picked, what I had to say wouldn’t be relevant (or wasn’t worth waiting for), but the alternative – just jumping in to the conversation – will always be dominated by the most confident on the topic.

      It wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to purposefully choose to attend sessions with <15 people if I want to join in.

      It was fun though, yes. Wish I'd signed-up for the Saturday too! Thanks for the comment.

  • 3. Glen Ocsko  |  February 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Just stumbled across this post, good points one and all! I particularly like number 3; I simply sat down with my brown bag and within a couple of minutes found myself chatting with some fascinating people and hearing about how the MoD does social media!

    And it was great briefly chatting with you too; in hindsight, seeing Room 1 next to the session I wanted to attend and then going to Room 1 does seem foolish… ;-)


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