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Why SOTM EU Was Awesome

Two weeks ago, Europe had its second State of the Map conference, SOTM EU 2014. I’ve attended several OSM conferences over the years and I can say that undoubetely SOTM EU was the best one yet.

What follows is my analysis of what worked best in the conference and what other OSM conferences can learn from the SOTM EU organizers.

Knowing the Audience

The key to any good conference is good talks. Getting good talks is a tough, but the SOTM EU conference had a good talk. Some had better speakers than others, but each talk was excellent. Kudos to the organizers for getting such good submissions and being able to select talks that fit the conference, and a mistake that we made early on in the US conferences (which continues to this day) was to treat the SOTM US conference as an outreach event. This meant having talks which were aimed as an audience who was unfamiliar with OSM and more than that, to focus on using, rather than contributing to the project.

The result has been several conferences that have felt “watered down” with talks about “How learned to load up tiles from Cloudmade/Mapbox on my website” While this may be an interesting topic to some, there are guides and websites that cover the topic in more depth, and hearing the same topic covered multiple times becomes boring or tedious for the audience. Worse still is when such speakers don’t even know the name of the project.

SOTM EU didn’t have any talks like this. All the talks were advanced yet presented in a way that was friendly to newcomers. By raising the bar on speakers, the entire conference was better.

Getting a mix of well known and newer names

Every project has its superstars. If there’s a talk by Richard Fairhurst or Andy Allen, you know it’s going to be of high quality. Fewer people have seen talks by Daniel Kastl or Maxim Rylov. It’s important to get the superstars in to draw in an audience, but provide a platform for lesser known OSMers to shine.

Talks About Mapping

Another positive attribute of SOTM EU was the emphasis on mapping, including new mapping techniques, mapping specific features or using software as a mapping aide.

This emphasis on “doing” is one of the aspects of the OSM project that I enjoy the most and differentiates us from similar projects or even from the general GIS community. The emphasis in OSM always remains on the process of collecting and curating data. By keeping the emphasis there, the conference organizers helped bring the community together.

Talk Length

It’s a tricky business to have a talk that’s just the right length. The talks at SOTM EU were 25 minutes plus questions and time for attendees to move between rooms. This turned out to be the perfect length to keep the audience engaged.

Lots of Lightening Talks

Lightening Talks are a really important part of a community oriented conference. They’re a chance to hilight interesting projects which may not fill up a full slot but still deserve some attention. There were several lightening talks that stood out to be as much or more than the full length talks!

Lack of Corporate Influence

The SOTM EU conference was clearly community run and an effort was made to highlight and celebrate the sponsors without letting them influence the conference direction. Speakers were clearly chosen for their talks and not because of any financial arrangements. There were no sponsored talks, “Business Days” or “Business Tracks” either. Companies were welcome to participate and collaborate, but as equals in the project.

“The Hallway Track”

SOTM EU actually took place in two buildings, one of which contained a medium sized room for registration and snacks. This room also had tables and benches, making it a perfect “Hallway Track” room. Some of the best conversations at the conference.

A Well Run Hack Day

For several years I tried to get a “Sprint Day” at SOTM, modeled after the Python conferences sprint days, when for up to a week after the conferences, Python hackers work on code related to various projects, each in their own small room. This model has not worked out, but the hybrid model that the SOTM EU organizers put together worked well, with highly technical talks in one room and another room dedicated to freeform hacking. I ended up attending all the talks because they were of such high caliber!

A/V Recording

Having a recording of conference sessions is invaluable. It allows conference attendees to watch all the talks they couldn’t attend, rewatch talks they enjoyed and spread the word on how great the conference was. Some events in the past have been recorded ad-hoc, but the professional recording that we’ve seen in some of the later SOTM US and now the SOTM EU conferences are key like this is invaluable.

Internationalism/Diversity

It’s hard to explain exactly why internationalism is so important at these conferences except to say that an international audience is a key aspect of diversity. OSMers come from all around the world, mapping locally but thinking globally, collaborating across borders and languages to work on a common project.

At the SOTM EU in Germany we had people from Germany, the UK, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Ireland, Romania, the United States and more. OpenStreetMap is one of the most diverse projects in the world and having people from all over world in one place helps remind us of that fact.

A Sense of Family

Coming to an OSM event feels very much like a family reunion. There are OSMers that I speak to nearly every single day, some that I see a few times a year, and some that I’ve spoken to online but had never met in person, but through my last five years of involvement with the project, I’ve made friendships and connections that I hope will last a lifetime. Some of the people in this project are as close as family to me and when I attend an event they extend a warm, hearty welcome. OSMers don’t always agree, but in person I’ve always had the sense that we can put our differences aside and share a real sense of mutual respect and love.

The SOTM EU conference really fostered that sense of family and community by keeping the conference so low key. There were no large, uncomfortable formalities and the atmosphere and talks emphasized relaxation and enjoyment. Fostering this atmosphere at a conference can be difficult, but the SOTM EU organizers managed to do it and so it in a way that felt entirely natural.

I can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoyed the conference. If you weren’t able to attend, I strongly suggest going to the website at http://sotm-eu.org and watching some of the talks. I know I’ll be looking out for next year’s event and getting my tickets early!