Large Conferences and Managing Complexity

In August 2014 close to 8000 people are projected to gather at the ExCeL, London, for Loncon 3 the World Science Fiction convention (colloquially known as Worldcon). Over five days thousands of different events will happen (talks, panels, concerts, plays, discussion groups, workshops, awards ceremonies and so on). More than two years of planning will have gone into making this a success by a geographically dispersed team of volunteers from three continents.

To manage the complexity that arises from all this information (events, equipment, participants and so forth.) Loncon is using the latest incarnation of a cloud based conference planning system.

Why is that key?

There are five aspects to planning a convention such as Loncon where planning technology helps reduce time and effort:

1. Data Collection – conventions such as Loncon plan better when there is detailed information about potential participants.

It was not enough to get basic contact information from the registration system into the planning system. Customized online questionnaires were created using the planning system which enabled the convention to collect data from potential participants. The data from the questionnaires included tag contexts for various areas that respondents could fill according to their interests (such as Literature, Media, Art and so forth).

2. Data Interpretation – being able to mine collected data improves the quality of the conference, by matching participants to topics and improving the experience for the members.

Planners from Loncon are able to examine the data via custom queries so as to best match participants to events. They can ask questions such as “which people said that they are available Thursday morning and stated a speciality of ‘History of Science/Technology’?”. Additionally, planners can also filter the list of people by their stated interest by using the tags from the questionnaires.

3. Managing Data – it is important to manage all aspects (space, time, people, and equipment). Real time conflict reporting and the ability to easily re-assign people and events is an essential tool.

At the time of writing this the Loncon planners are in the process of putting together the various programme items (events) and deciding the time and place for each. As each planner adds people to events, or events to a time and place, conflicts can arise: participants assigned to an event at times that they are not available, or assigned to be in two places at the same time. Seeing these conflicts in real time and being able to adjust accordingly is an indispensable function.

4. Publishing Data – it is not enough to have things well planned within the system, you need to get the information out to the members via various channels.

Loncon’s programme of events will be available to members via native iOS and Android apps that interface directly with the planning system. The apps will have been themed to compliment the convention’s brand. Event though there is a paperless channel there is still a need to support print publications. To do so Loncon will use the tools within the system to extract the convention schedule in a format suitable for pre-press software.

5. Change Management – to paraphrase an old saying: the one certainty is that things will change. Conventions such as Loncon need to be able to manage change and inform members in a timely manner.

Loncon is able to version the programme and work on changes to the schedule of events from with the planning system. Then the changes are published on an as needed basis. The mobile application synchronizes with the planning system when it has data connectivity so members are informed in a timely manner (changes and updates will be flagged accordingly). Changes will also be exported from the system to be included in news-letters that are distributed at the convention.

The Future, Data and Interoperability

We are seeing the maturation of technology used for planning conferences. It is great having multiple applications to help you put together your next great event. But how can these work together? Better still from the user and planners point of view would be standards for data interchange. Is this in the future of event planning technologies?

Grenadine Event Planner assists the organizer through the lifecycle of planning a conference.