Posted on Nov 4, 2009

Notes/personal observations from my year of science conferences (covering SciBarCamp, SciFoo, Science Commons and Citizen Science Alliance).

In July I attended SciBarCamp and SciFoo. These were both amazing events, each with their own approach and attendee diversity. While SciBarCamp had diversity in the types of science each attendee worked in, in general the people who chose to be there were fairly tech-savvy and more on the communications/outreach side of science than the scientist side. At SciFoo it was about the opposite, people coming from very diverse areas of science with varying roles/experiences in it, but a lot less tech-savvy.

BarCamps and FooCamps revolve around the user-generated goal of having everyone who attends actively contribute to the conference. I had a rough idea for a topic I wanted to converse with people about in hopes of gaining more first-person insight around it. After brainstorming with my counterpart Natalie (pictured above with me in our lab coats at Institute For The Future), we ended up on the title, “Open Collaboration Between Scientists, Communities, and the Unknown“. I gave the talk at both conferences, treating it as a conversation in progress. The two sessions went very differently. At SciBarCamp, I gave the talk with Natalie and by the end of it, people in the room were eager with voicing their thoughts on how to solve open collaboration problems and offering advice to other people who voiced concerns. At SciFoo, I led the talk and had a few other attendees demonstrate their endeavors in open collaboration. Though the talk is inherently conversational (having each attendee speak up at least once), it was mostly crickets. I have an inkling as to why this was.

In my observations, the more tech-savvy crowds were more vocal, but less diverse. At SciFoo, while it was incredibly inspiring to be around people you might otherwise never in your life get a chance to meet, the diversity seemed to create conversational barriers, which made BarCamp-style interactive talks more difficult some of the time. It felt as if the extreme differences between people made them less eager to offer advice/solutions to one another. Some of this could also be accounted for by the majority of the attendees not being familiar with the user-generated conference format and thus more used to just sitting back and listening to a talk.

The coolest thing off the top of my head that I learned about at SciFoo was a guy talking about his geo-engineering solution for climate change. Essentially using microbubble generators attached to boats that cause water to temporarily appear white in the ocean. He had worked out all the logistics for it and calculated that enough sunlight would be reflected off the otherwise dark-blue-light-absorbing ocean to make a big change. I think he is working out making this a reality (or at least I hope he is!). I’m frustrated each time I see an article on geo-engineering being unrealistic (always citing the “mirrors in space” idea to generate “yeah, right” reactions from readers).

Either way, I had a great time at SciBarCamp and I was completely honored to be one of the few invited to SciFoo (seriously, an event with world renowned scientists from every subject around the world, science couldn’t measure my excitement!). Socially, it all felt like the first day of school and the last day of summer camp in one weekend.

Thankfully, I had another event to attend later in the month to satiate my science cravings. Science Commons was a panel, moderated by Tim O’Reilly, dedicated to discussing how to make the web work for science. The discussion was cut off way too short for such an important subject. Nevertheless, issues discussed in the short time centered around web and identification standards for various types of scientific data, the perceived lack of incentives to collaborate and be online, and how citizen science makes a huge impact.

Lastly, I had the pleasure of being in London for the Citizen Science Alliance conference at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The event mostly featured the team behind Galaxy Zoo discussing the challenges they faced and the exciting new endeavors they have coming up. Their new endeavor, Zooniverse, is indeed something to get excited about. In summary, they’re offering a hand-holding process and platform to help scientists get massively large data sets online and ready to be analyzed by citizen scientists. This is incredibly important as it is a common problem I hear about and this solution not only provides the technology, but also the much needed community support when starting the process. Overall, I was very happy to be able to attend this and meet people working in the citizen science world from different countries. I personally love to see citizen science projects and involvement coming out of countries outside of the States and can only hope there will be a lot more of it in the coming years.

1 Comment

  1. Cynthia
    November 16, 2009

    Agreed! More collaboration is needed among scientists, anthropologists, and researchers in general. Too many insightful findings remain in the groups they came from. The right kind of sharing can be beneficial for all parties!