OpenCon was this past weekend (Nov. 11 – 14) in Washington, DC. I was (and still am) honored to have been selected as one of ~200 attendees. Before I get into my reflections on the conference, I want to extend a huge thank you to Nicole Allen, Nick Shockey, all of the volunteers on the planning committee, SPARC, and all other sponsors. The sponsorship provided by many public and private organizations makes OpenCon what it is.
What is OpenCon?
OpenCon is a conference held yearly in different cities around the world. To date, it’s been in Washington, DC twice and Brussels once. The in-person conference is relatively small, consisting of ~200 attendees from all over the world. The application process itself is not difficult, but they did receive ~10,000 applications for less than 200 slots this year. I believe that speaks to their success in being an open and inviting place for anyone trying to improve the state of open access (broadly defined). In addition to the in-person conference, they live stream every presentation, and try to live stream as much of the other work (unconferences and even receptions) as possible. In addition (yet again) to the live streaming, they organize OpenCon satellite events in major metro areas to build local relationships and networks in Open Access.
OpenCon is a very diverse gathering. Because it focuses on many flavors of Open Access, there are a wide range people there, including researchers, librarians, administrators, etc. Obviously, everyone has their niche interest, but hearing what other people are doing outside of my niche interest (open data in academia) was really useful.
A unique part of OpenCon is their model for providing scholarships to people that cannot otherwise afford the full cost of travel and conference fees. Other conferences provide scholarships, but I get the feeling that OpenCon provides a lot of scholarships comparatively. I was the recipient of a scholarship for the conference fee ($300 to attend) and I am very grateful for that. As a 100% self-funded attendee, the $300 outlay would have been painful. It was very interesting to talk to people from all over the world who are working on Open Access. I found it tiring to slow my normal English speaking pace down by half a beat (I talk fast :-/), so I can’t imagine how exhausting it was for so many people to spend an entire weekend speaking and learning in a non-native language.
Which leads me to my next point: we spoke a lot during the conference about diversity and barriers to access. That the conference is held in English is definitely a barrier to access, but I don’t know of a more “inclusive” way to conduct the conference. One attendee (Iara Vidal) was providing Portuguese language summaries of what was going on, which I think was great. I never really focused much on the intersectionality of class, race, and open access before this conference, and I am definitely better off for the conversations we had around institutional changes that need to happen as a part of open access.
One thing that was somewhat disappointing was the criticism that OpenCon got for having their first 3 speakers as white men. While I respect that viewpoint, I will note that the speakers (in order) were the head organizer of the conference, a representative of the key funder of the conference (Max Planck Society), and the keynote speaker (Brewster Kahle). And while the argument could be made that a more diverse keynote speaker could have been invited, I think that Brewster Kahle was a very deserving person to keynote a conference on Open Access (not to mention that his speech itself was interesting). As time goes on, I’m sure keynote speakers will continue to be diverse choices.
At all points, it seemed as if the organizers and attendees were all very committed to self-critical openness. And while there were some viewpoints I disagreed with, I was thankful for many other conversations that helped me grow in this community (especially April Hathcock’s comments in 2 panels).
I hope that I will be a better ally and advocate for openness as it relates to equality and justice in the future. My work, in particular, rests at an intersection between the open research data and civic tech movements. There has been a lot of conversation in civic tech about “techno-determinist” solutions to problems; i.e. technology is a hammer, so every problem in society looks like a nail. It’s a conversation I haven’t engaged with heavily because I don’t think I have much to add, but I think that critical self-awareness is finally coming to open government and civic tech, and I think that a lot of what was discussed at OpenCon would greatly affect that conversation. Perhaps next year there will be more open government people at the conference in addition to early career researchers and librarians. That community could certainly use the help and the OpenCon community can learn from open government’s considerable successes.
On The Program
By way of flowing one idea into another, I will note that diversity was a big part of the official and unofficial program at OpenCon. I’m very aware that openness can still serve to reinforce current power structures, and that we need to be ensure that the work we’re doing does, in fact, actually serve to level the playing field in research, government, and education. Again, these were not dots that I had really connected before this conference. And, uncomfortable as it is, I’m doing my best to square some of what was discussed at OpenCon with the way that I viewed the world beforehand.
The official program at OpenCon was inspiring. Much of the first full day was devoted to listening to program/project updates by OpenCon alums and other people in the open community. And while everyone was doing a lot of neat stuff, I think that a full day of sitting in chairs and listening to lectures was pretty draining. I would have liked to see more of the quick lightning talks (2 minutes on a wide range of projects), even if that meant fewer of the longer successful project presentations.
I was also somewhat disappointed by the time we had to do discussion/moving ideas forward/work on our interests with like-minded people. The unconferences were really good for that because people were able to divide up into things that were interesting to them and have discussions around those things. I would have liked to have that format be a larger part of the conference. Similarly, while I do like the unconference format, if there were more planned breakout sessions around common topics of shared interest first, I think that the unconference sessions would be much more productive. As it was, most of the unconferences that I went to spent time going through basics of the topic and there wasn’t enough time to brainstorm strong ideas. Or perhaps I just wanted more time for that in general. Balancing learning sessions that allow people to focus on their specific interest with making sure that people have a broad view of what is happening in the whole open community is difficult. There’s also a difficult balance to strike between learning and doing at a conference. But I would like to have seen the balance be a bit more towards specific interest and doing (or at least discussing doing).
Flexibility, I believe, was a big part of the organizing committee’s ethos. And I did like that. The conference was able to change and adjust as important issues came up that deserved billing on the schedule. What was unfortunate was the we didn’t have any idea what the broad schedule was going to be until just a few days before the event (and there were times that well planned parts of the conference were unknown to individual participants until just before the event). I do wish there was better/more open communication around the schedule as it was happening from the organizing committee.
On Advocacy Day
The final day of the conference is “Advocacy day” where groups of attendees go out to various federal agencies and/or legislators’ offices to educate and advocate for “Open Access” broadly. Some people we met with had no prior background around open access anything at all, and the goal was simply to educate. I think for those types of people, advocacy day is an amazing opportunity for the OpenCon community to raise awareness of the issues.
Some of the people we met with were already experts in the issues surrounding open access. For those people, we were tasked with making specific “asks” of the person for a policy change or improvement. I think that in the cases where the OpenCon members were asked to talk to experts and make specific asks, we were caught slightly unaware. The people that go to OpenCon tend to have a strong understanding of open access, but that’s not the same as having a good view of a specific organization’s open access policy, their current initiatives, and specific policy proposals that could make sense. And I think that giving groups a few hours to become experts on people and organizations is not fair. So that could mean revealing who is placed in which advocacy sessions earlier than the day of the meeting, or it could mean making sure that there are strong dossiers on the people and organizations. Being conscious of the already large amount of work that the organizing committee puts in and trying to avoid piling on more work, I think letting groups know who they’re going to advocate to earlier in the process is the most reasonable change.
Another change I’d like to see on the advocacy day is around how attendees are matched with organizations. Ostensibly, the organizing committee matches attendees with people/organizations relevant to them. And while I have no doubt they worked very hard to do just that, I think they missed the mark for many people. For example, I was paired with the National Institutes of Health to talk about the NIH open access policy. Unfortunately, I’ve never had any special interest in the NIH or medical research. And while we wound up talking about pre-prints in the grant evaluation process, which is a good topic and important, my work has been focused on open data. We were a very large group, so it worked out fine that I didn’t need to carry a conversation. At the same time, I currently live in Massachusetts and my Senator was one of the advocacy meetings; I was not invited to that. I’d like to see future participants be allowed to give some input on where they’re assigned to advocate (perhaps a ranked voting system would be appropriate). This could ensure that people are advocating for things they’re passionate about to people they’re passionate about.
I’ve just spent the better part of 2 typed pages suggesting changes to OpenCon. But that doesn’t mean that it was a bad experience; in fact, it was an amazing experience in many ways. Randy Pausch, in his Last Lecture, tells a story about a football coach riding him hard during practice; criticizing him constantly. And the assistant coach telling Randy that, rather than being angry about the constant criticism, he should be concerned when the coach stops criticizing him, because that’s when they’ve given up on him. My thoughts and criticisms come from a place of true belief in the spirit, mission, and work of OpenCon, and a genuine confidence that the organizing committee is willing and able to take that criticism constructively.
The reason that I have such confidence in OpenCon is because, through this weekend, I have seen a sliver of the potential of open access that these people see. I applied to OpenCon in about 15 minutes at eleven o’clock at night one night, figuring that it didn’t hurt to try. These people believed in my work. And, in all honesty, they believed in it before I did. They gave me a shot to come, share my passion with like-minded people, and grow from their feedback and experiences. I will say that the support, positive feedback, and constructive criticism have been amazing. I have been able to refine the story around OpenAcademicData.org and hopefully convinced some people that administrative and educational data are important to open to the world. I am honored and humbled that they believed in my work enough to select me to become a part of the OpenCon family.
OpenCon is a young conference at only three years old. They are still learning and changing rapidly. I hope and believe that as time goes on, it will only get better, smoother, more mature. I also believe that these are the sort of people who will always be restless, never quite finding exactly the right way to do the conference because there never will be one. They will change with the times as appropriate. And, because so much of this community is comprised of early career [researchers, librarians, government employees, etc.], they will always be on the cutting edge of open access. I look forward to seeing the next iteration of the conference and how impactful it can be on the lives of the participants.
Note: If I have mentioned your name specifically in this post, it is because I want everyone to get the credit they deserve. If you would prefer that I not mention you by name or that I remove the link to your social media account, please message me and I will remove it immediately.