If you have ever been to a BarCamp like BarCampAustinIII, then you know that each one is a unique, lightening in a bottle, not to be missed if at all possible. If you have never been, then it should be added to the list of things to do before you ... err... something less dramatic than “Die” but makes the point about the event. Insert your own drama there. Lets just say that it is right up there with sliced bread.
If you have not been, describing one is not easy. Here is a travelogue to attempt to give a flavor of what this event is like.
This year I was in the "official" role of volunteer. I showed up a day ahead of the event to see what needed helping-with, and tried to help. This evolved into meeting the others on the organizing committee that were working with Whurley to put the event together.
The venue was the very impressive “Idea City” of GSD&M, on West 6th Street near Lamar in Austin (as the name implies...). This is the place where they come up with some of the best commercials on TV: My favorite being the one where the designer is taking the couple through a building showing them pictures of he previous work, including the IBM building in Seattle, and basically being full of himself. Finally, he settles into his desk chair and addresses the couple, asking how he might help them. The woman pulls a water faucet out of her purse and says “Design a house around this”, then waits amused for his reaction. The building was perfect for what BarCamp needed.
There were last minute crisis: The train with the t-shirts for the event had literally derailed. Last minute scrambling had another set on the way, and they arrived less than 12 hours before the doors opened.
The folks from Viewzi.tv set up an impromptu studio in a corner of the lobby, while some of us assembled the lanyards and badges. Turns out this was Viewzi’s launch event, but I did not know that at the time. Some of us went home for so sleep before the main event, others carried on well into the night.
Saturday morning at 8:00am chaos was in the process of not so much being tamed but having pointers placed into it. BarCamps have some people planning what they will talk about for months, and others deciding at the last minute what the will do. part of it depends on who comes, and what the wisdom of the group is. In this sense, a BarCamp is to a technical conference what Open Source is to closed. I being new to the BarCamp “Staff” thing had started to figure out that no one was going to tell me what to do or how to help. If I had to be told, it appeared it was going to be easier to just work around me. So I started finding things to do and owning them. Unpacking T-Shirts onto tables. Laying out the tables. Retrieving the badge Sharpie pens from whoever just stole them *this* time. Near me others set up paper charts on the wall that people could put post-it notes on with session names for the various conference rooms. They like Sharpie Pens over there it should be noted. Someone else was dealing with the bands, and the food, and the beer, and the battle bot, and the zillion other details that have to be done, and the all had been decided (as near as I could tell) at the last possible moment.
The Wiki was being updated as things were decided, and as sessions were set. Not too many: just a few that the folks setting up knew were coming or were giving themselves. By 10:00 AM the doors were open, and it was clear that chaos was to continue. I decided to be the greeter, and show folks where to sign in on the iMacs, hand them badges and Sharpies, and point them to the swag table (now laden with over 2000 free T-Shirts), the free drinks from Vitamin Water and Sweet Leaf Tea, and the sessions wall. The iPhone DevCamp folks arrived and were set up in a room, only to be seen from time to time thereafter when they needed food.
I don’t know when the session board filled up. It was pretty quickly after that: All sorts of things were up there, from the announcement and demonstration of Operas new mobile and mini-browsers (8:00pm, Omega Room), to cloud and other social networking sessions to a hands on session at 12:00 by Anne Gentle about the OLPC XO laptop. I went to that session, abandoning my post of greeter after two hours. Someone else flowed in to the obvious vacuum and greeted folks. At this point I was really starting to get the magic that is a BarCamp, where everyone helps out to do what has to be done and keep chaos just slightly at bay. It even got better.
The XO’s are tiny: Smaller than I expected, but they are way cool. Anne had two: Her personal unit from “Give One, Get One”, and a spanish keyboarded developer version she was using to write documentation for the units. Among other things in that session, we set them up and used the “Dolphin” application to have them acoustically ping each other and report their distance to each other in meters. 3.4 Meters.
Lunch arrived (Banzai Burritos from Wahoo’s), and Anne decided to set up the XO’s in a central area so others could see them. When she had to go for a while, I stood with them so others could walk by and have a look. For the next three or four hours people flowed by the XO’s and we talked about them and the OLPC project. There were two consensus items: US schools need to have these things. All of them. Home Schools. 1A schools. All of them. The 30,000 US dollar price that is the entry to buying them (outside of the now past “Give One, Get One” program) is just too high for small and / or rural schools. The other was that the “Give One, Get One” program needs to return.
The sessions continued (about eighty or so sessions were now on the board), and the iPhone guys peeked out, blinked in the light, scooped up some more caffeinated beverages, and ran back to their conference room to continue their battle with the new SDK for the iPhone. Early thinking was reported to be that most preferred the “Jailbreak” method so far.
At some point the Battle Bot went crazy but I was off running an errand for whurley and missed the whole thing. Viewzi has it on their web site, and whurley has a link in his blog already.
The live music kicked off with Soulhat out back in a courtyard area. “Dillo Dogs” from Wahoos arrived. That is what someone told me they were called anyway. They are not on the Wahoo menu, and that is too bad: Best Hot Dog I have ever had. I admit, I do not eat much meat and I am not really sure that Hot Dogs normally are classifiable as meat, but I made an exception for these and disappeared them.
Beer flowed from Independence Brewery, (where my favorite as a home-brewer myself turned out to be a very nicely done Pale Ale.) Darkness fell, sessions continued. Music, conversations with all sorts of people.
Then came the next band: Karaoke Apocalypse. A terrific cover band with people singing lead for them from the audience. At least the band always sounded good. The people that had been spread over the courtyard moved up close to the stage. A Unicorn kicked it off, quickly followed by “Snax”, and then it went all over the place from there. I went inside to attend a session given by Opera.
At 10:00 PM, local ordinance required that the outdoor music cease, which most thought was a shame as it was still rocking. Consensus opinion: Isn’t this Austin? Music capital of Texas? What is up with this 10 PM thing? Sessions continued indoors: the iPhone guys having moved into a different conference room, and ordering then snarfing down a few Pizzas. I guess they missed the Dillo Dogs.
The conversations continued: this was one day, and there was just no way to meet everyone, and find all the people you might have something in common with. Every person I met was interesting, open, outgoing, and intelligent: Clearly BarCamp selects for positive traits in people.
Midnight arrived, and BarCampAustinIII came to an end. We cleaned up Idea City so that GSD&M would not regret having had us in for the day, and then folks went their various ways. Some were getting ready for more SouthBySouthWest activities on Sunday. Others were headed out for a very late / very early bit of food. I had three hours yet to drive to get back to the swamplands from Austin. Sleep came very easy, but it was not a good weekend to have the DST thing kick in. Monday is not going to be fun.
There just is not any way to really describe the way a BarCamp like this is. I can tell you we gave away over 2000 T-Shirts, saw more than 700 folks attend, had more impromptu, in-the-moment technical conversations that are possible at a more regimented conference, and on and on, and it still would not come close to giving you the flavor of what one of these is like. The good news is if you missed BarCampAustinIII, BarCampAustin4 has already been announced. I have no idea why the switch from roman numerals to numbers, but I assume it is because the Roman numerals were about to become a great big pain, given the success of these events..
Pictures of the whole thing are available on Flickr: http://flickr.com/groups/barcampaustin3/pool/