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BarCamp Vancouver 2008 – Unconference Meta

For those of you who don’t know much about unconferences, this past weekend saw the 2008 edition of BarCamp Vancouver on Granville Island. I proposed a session called “BarCamps for Non-Techies” and, at 2pm, turned up to the stage to find a good group of around 20-25 people. We decided to drag the chairs onto the stage rather than having me feel alone and unable to interact with the people sitting in the theatre seats.

While I had initially proposed this session as a reflection and a group conversation to hear more about the experiences from others who had run BarCamps outside the technology sector (such as the recent BarCampBankBC for the financial sector), this was not the way conversation unfolded. Instead, people were very interested in hearing more about my work with TransLink on the upcoming unconference, and – in true BarCamp fashion – not shy about telling me where they thought my and our efforts may be coming up short, and why that might be.

A gentleman in the overflow seating (tell me who you are if you’re him or if you know him!) stated it bluntly (please note that the next two quotes are from my memory, not verbatim):

The thing that we love about BarCamps is their transparency, and TransLink is not known for being a transparent organization, so how can we take this unconference seriously?

Tara Robertson‘s comments were along these lines when she described her reaction to seeing the SkyTrain Unconference advertised in the Buzzer:

When I saw the Unconference in the Buzzer, all I could think was: those jerks! They’re co-opting something that is so great and so much in the community that I love and just using it for their PR. […] I don’t even care about security, I want my bus to just get there on time!

Those cut to the core of it, and they are not easy to address. But I’m also interested and slightly amused to see how different the perspectives on this can be. Having put some thought into this, let me describe the criticisms received as I understand them for those just joining in:

  • People are concerned that this is not going to result in any meaningful or observable change in their favor.
  • People are concerned that this is a PR tactic designed to make them look like they are doing something while actually letting things remain in the status quo.
  • People are concerned that this event is calling itself an unconference in name while not embodying any of the values or things that give unconferences their energy and meaning.

Deep breath. Let’s take out the two phrases I’ve highlighted: meaningful and observable change; energy and meaning.

What will bring about meaningful and observable change? What gives unconferences their energy and meaning?

Meaningful and observable change in public transit – well, things being what they are, this one is mostly in the hands of TransLink. But even maybe as riders, there are things we can do to bring about different kinds of changes than the one TransLink would do – things we can do for each other, or for the staff we encounter, or the places we spend so much of our time.

Energy and meaning – this is something unique to the people who come. This is our responsibility, as participants – that of the people who come and participate, and we are the only ones who can do it. It is this that makes everything afterwards possible.

Why would we want to do it, you wonder, when TransLink has shown itself to be ungrateful, unhelpful, and unwelcoming?

Because I’m not good at linear logic, I will turn this around: what kind of transit authority do we want? Do we want one that is ungrateful, unhelpful and unwelcoming, or one that works with the community, that is reactive and responsive, serving both the public and their employees well, and transparent and responsible?

If it is the latter we want, what do we need to do to get this? My own answer is to work with them, and to encourage the people in the organization that I encounter to model these values in their own work all the time. How can we find ways to reward the people who are doing this? Conversely, how do we make sure that those who aren’t doing this know that shorting communities is not the way to go? How do we empower those people within the organization so that they can bring about that meaningful and observable change? How do we make sure they stay and not give up?

Asking and trying to find answers to these questions is my answer. It is not everyone’s answer. Tara (and Kate Milberry, who was also very active in this discussion) say that the Bus Riders Union needs to be at the unconference for it to be meaningful. While I am inclined to agree, I think some important conversations need to happen. Specifically, what kind of energy and meaning will they bring to it? I hope I can have these conversations with them in the (check countdown) 5 days we have until the unconference, so that they can bring something awesome and meaningful.

Update: I meant to slot this in: Nancy Zimmerman’s thoughts on BarCampBankBC were close while I was shaping this post. She, too, has been wondering about what passionate people can bring when it comes to organizations that people, perhaps very justifiably, downright hate and despise.


  1. Hey Karen,

    I foolishly didn’t sit in on your session at Bar Camp this past weekend and I can’t make the SkyTrain unconference. In order to attempt to make up for it, I posted a blog post up on the Georgia Straight website.


    Maybe some people who would be into this will read about it there and come take part in the SkyTrain discussions.

    Chris Slater

    Posted September 29, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  2. Chris,

    Thanks for the heads up and the blog post! Much appreciated. Hopefully I’ll run into you some other time around town!


    Posted September 30, 2008 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  3. Hey Karen, good chatting with you at BeerCamp. I figured I’d drop you a quick comment since I didn’t have any business cards. :)

    Posted October 1, 2008 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  4. Hi Karen,

    I’ve been carrying a conversation with Jhenifer Pabilano about transparency and stuff like that, but it’s over email so I am not sure if she would agree to publish it. I made some pretty strong comments about my perception of transparency in Translink in my email exchanges. I will ask her if I can publish some/all of our email conversation, which I think is also relevant to the overall conversation of the Skytrain Unconference and stuff.

    Posted October 25, 2008 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] Karen Quinn Fung’s session – BarCamps for non-techies – was quite interesting. Karen is an SFU grad whom I met at Web of Change – a real smart cookie and […]

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