OpenCon 2016

Last week I got back from the US after attending OpenCon in Washington DC from 12-14 Nov. Arriving the day after the US election results came out, the mood in the capital was very somber as people were trying to grapple with what just happened. Even walking down the streets, I caught fragments of many conversations discussing the recent events. I also arrived on Veteran’s Day, and as I had some time to do a bit of sight seeing, I decided to walk along the Mall, and also to the end where most of the war memorials are located.

“OpenCon is more than a conference. It’s a platform for the next generation to learn about Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data, develop critical skills, and catalyze action toward a more open system for sharing the world’s information—from scholarly and scientific research, to educational materials, to digital research data.”

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Something really unique about OpenCon is that it is very much aimed at early career researchers and professionals from all fields and disciplines. And more than that, the actual physical conference is only one part: there is a very active community, enhanced by the mailing list (sign up here if you’re interested), monthly community calls, and also numerous satellite events hosted around the world throughout the year.

This is the third year the conference has been going. I’ve also been honored to have been invited to be on the Organising Committee for the conference for the past 2 years. We’ve been having calls every 2-3 weeks since January to give input on decisions and help with some aspects of the organising.It was also really fun to meet each other at the conference and put faces to voices!
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2016 Organising Committee

If any number from the conference sticks out, it’s the number of applications received this year. A massive 10 000 applications! And this year, 230 were accepted to attend, representing 60 countries, a large proportion of which are fully sponsored trips. In the final selection, there were also many criteria to balance, such as gender, field of study, geographical region, level in career, first time at the conference (80%) and alumni, and knowledge and involvement in “open” (from newbie to rock star!).

Overall, it was a very dynamic, diverse, young, passionate, proactive group of people, with so many inspiring ideas, accomplishments and projects. I also really enjoyed going back again and I felt more confident as I knew what to expect and knew a lot of the community already. I’ve also never seen such an active Twitter stream! Just have a look at #OpenCon for all the highlights, resources shared, projects spoke about, and motivating and thought-provoking quotes from everyone.

A few highlights for me

  • Being inspired by everyone around me!
  • Keynote speaker, Brewster Kahle, Digital Librarian and most well known as the founder of the Internet Archive, has been working to provide universal access to all knowledge for more than twenty-five years.
  • Project Presentations (short 2 min talks interspersed throughout the programme, that gave quick overviews of some of the incredible projects that everyone is working on.) Some that suck out for me:
  • The panel on “Equity and Open”
    • this was incredibly powerful and each speaker got a standing ovation
    • the focus was on how open can enable and achieve equity, inclusion and access to knowledge by breaking down various systemic barriers and addressing individual’s unique needs
    • the panel shared really diverse experiences and contexts, from developing, very poor nations to sexual orientation and gender identity to understanding your legal rights so as not to be abused/taken advantage of to being mentally and physically handicapped
    • everything was live streamed, but links to recording aren’t up yet, otherwise I’d point you to this discussion

Some other interesting and insightful items during the programme

  • We tried a few new things on the agenda this year, one of them being “Story circles“, where everyone was broken up into small groups and you each had 6-8 minutes to tell your story and how you ended up where you are today – everyone else just listens, no questions or interruptions. I led one myself and found it a really intimate space so early on in the conference to connect with others and hear some amazing and inspiring stories.
  • The Unconference afternoon where participants can propose sessions (can be any format, or have no format!) and everyone votes for sessions. Based on the number of votes, they allocated room sizes and it was a bit of chaos as everyone goes around in the afternoon taking part in things they’re interested in. I think including this in a conference can be a bit of a risk, and sometimes some sessions work and some others don’t. But, some of the best connections and new projects or collaborations are often born in these informal spaces.
  • Open Reactions – this was a last minute inclusion where the floor was opened up for anyone to give feedback or make comments about what had been discussed during the day. Some really interesting things came up, and made people stop and think, such as:
    • a comment about the continual Trump references and that “the world has changed” from two participants, one from Ethiopia and one from Egypt, specifically referencing their own stories in their respective countries and not to be too inward looking when making comments about how the world has “suddenly” changed
    • pointing out that the use of the word “lame” in some of the earlier presentations was offensive to people who were actually physically handicapped

Advocacy Day

  • After 2 days of conference, the third day was an “Advocacy Day”.
  • We did this last year in Brussels and got to go to the EU parliament, and this year obviously being in DC, it was centered around US politics, institions and agencies.
  • We first had a morning of some training about what it means to be an open advocate, and some basic tips for the meetings
  • Then we were assigned into small groups for meetings in the afternoon. We had to research, prep and decide how to tackle the meetings before setting out to Capitol Hill, mostly.
  • My first meeting was with the office of Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona (the only Republican senator who didn’t publicly support Trump). Four of us went to the Senate and met with his aid to advocate for what they could do in Arizona around open issues.
  • My second meeting was the highlight as I got to go to the US Department of Education and met with 2 ladies from the Office of Educational Technology (although less of an advocacy meeting though as they were both strong supporters of and active within the open movement):
    • Kristina Peters who is leading the GoOpen campaign in the US for K-12 schools (we got to chat quite a bit at the final reception too)
    • Sara Trettin, Policy Advisor, and specifically chatted to her about the Open Government Partnership (which Obama initiated and there are now 70 countries involved, SA being one of them), and I’ve now joined the monthly community calls focused on opportunities for open education commitments in OGP National Action Plans, which I’m looking forward to learning more about.

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A huge thank you to everyone who attended, both in person and to the live events, for making it such an inspiring and stimulating experience. And a special thanks to the organisers, the Right to Research Coalition and SPARC , for inviting me to be on the Committee and sponsoring my trip.

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