THATCamp Canberra reflections


I was initially drawn to THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) as it dubbed itself an “unconference”. This term describes a non-hierarchical, non-disciplinary, free event that encourages everyone to participate. The idea for THATCamp evolved from an international network of user-generated conferences called BarCamps – participatory workshops designed and delivered by the people attending. The first BarCamps shared a focus on open source technologies and open data formats.

The happenings at THATCamps are designed by the attendees. When I first read the participants’ biographies, I found there to be a lot of people working for institutions whose conference needs focussed around the management of large cultural collections – think metadata, taxonomies and the semantic web. Although I have an interest in large cultural collections, specifically issues surrounding digital archival artefacts and the public domain, I was concerned that this might be the conference focus. This concern evolved pretty quickly in to excitement regarding what might happen when these people began connecting with other participants from different areas of practice.

Attendees at THATCamp Canberra, were invited to contribute session ideas during the lead up to the event, which led to an organic and relatively seamless process of self-organisation on the morning of day 1. It was difficult to choose between workshops as I felt most of the sessions were relevant to my practice on some level. I settled on Mashups and APIs; Crowdsourcing Communities; Digital Mapping; Data Visualisation; Technology in Space; and a session designed to glean ideas for a new interactive media space at the National Museum of Australia. The sessions sometimes veered in to territory outside my interests, but were still worthwhile as my perception of each area was enriched and challenged. The 3 minute “speedos” were also a great format. The floor was thrown open to anyone who wanted to spend 3 minutes talking about a project or about their research. If they went over the 3 minute mark and wanted to keep talking they had to break out in to Bollywood dance moves. Moments like these helped reinforce the informal nature of the event.

The Twitter back channel was also a treat to indulge in. Not only did the THATCamp hashtag provide participants with summaries of sessions and related links, but it created another interface for connecting with people. At one point I found myself having a Twitter interaction with someone across the room. It was surreal partly because I chose to contribute to the session, not by speaking but by posting a message on Twitter, and partly because I received a response to my message from a stranger a few seats away.  We continued to send each other ideas and links via Twitter throughout the session.

In summary, THATCamp was engaging, stimulating, fun and most importantly it offered an inviting space to connect with people engaged in similar and very different endeavours. The next Australian THATCamp is being held in Melbourne in late March, 2011.