If You Build InfoCamp, They Will Come

As a student in the Information School's MSIM program, Rachel Elkington ('08) was given a travel award from the iSchool's gift funds to help pay her way to the 2007 Information Architect Summit in Las Vegas. "I hadn't seen the user experience community as a whole before that," she remembers. "Going meant I had all these great opportunities. I took a huge step forward professionally because of it; I would be able to interview better and network. I was very conscious that my peers who didn't get to go wouldn't have that."

Always a student leader and a co-chair of the iSchool's ASIS&T student chapter, Rachel was already thinking at the Summit about how her fellow students could get this kind of experience. So when two Seattle professionals she met at a Summit mixer told her about the concept of BarCamp, she vowed to hold one in Seattle, "I told one of them, Nick Finck, I was going to start a BarCamp, and even though I'm sure he was thinking 'who are you?' he was really enthusiastic." BarCamps, which were founded in Silicon Valley to discuss open source technologies and web applications, are unstructured conferences, loosely organized around open, participatory workshops. Participants arrive at the event site on the day of the conference and determine all the content together.

Meanwhile, iSchool alumni and ASIS&T Pacific Northwest chapter members Aaron Louie ('03) and Kristen Shuyler ('05) were talking about ways to re-envision and revitalize the chapter's annual meeting and bring local information professionals together in new ways. When Rachel, Aaron and Andy Szydlowski ('08) met at the iSchool-student organized iEdge conference on the UW campus later that year, there was an immediate meeting of the minds. Together, they decided to create InfoCamp, an unstructured "unconference" built along the lines of BarCamp but focused on information and information technology, created to attract everyone from academic and public librarians to information architects and user experience designers.

Except for a keynote speaker on the first day, and a plenary speaker on the second, InfoCamp topics are determined by participants when they arrive. There's a blank grid of times and meeting rooms in butcher paper on the wall; participants bring topics and sign up to lead them. Other attendees look at the wall, or the constantly updated wiki site, to determine which talks to attend over the two days of the conference. An attendee who is used to a more structured conference might expect an "unconference" to be chaotic, but the broad framework provides a sense of what's available while allowing for spontaneity and "of-the-moment" issues to be including in the content.

The first InfoCamp was held in West Seattle at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in 2007. It was an immediate success, though no one was sure how many people would come. "We sold 120 tickets at the door!" Rachel recalls. The keynote speaker was iSchool lecturer Bob Boiko. Attendees embraced the unusual format; people came with discussion and presentation ideas, and the conference continued until everyone ran out of ideas. "We ended early on the second day," she adds. "We learned how to spread things out for the second year, and people came with even more ideas."

InfoCamp 2010, the fourth year of the conference, was held in October at Seattle University. The event sold out; it had to be capped at 424 tickets because there were exactly 424 seats in the auditorium for the keynote and all of them were filled. Aaron Schmidt, Digital Initiatives Librarian for the D.C. Public Library and a user experience consultant, was the keynote speaker and Samantha Starmer ('05), Manager of eCommerce Experience at REI, gave the plenary.

As the conference has grown, a large number of industry sponsors have seen the value of the event. Blake Johnson, Founder and VP of Marketing for Protoshare in Portland, has found InfoCamp sponsorship to be a great value, "It's close for us to come, so two of us drove up from Portland and set up a vendor table. It's a more casual and accessible atmosphere than you find at a trade show. People approached and really interacted; we could really get a sense of how people are using products and ideas, and it was great exposure to a very qualified audience. This has been one of the best conferences we've been to."

One pleasant surprise for many sponsors like Protoshare is the wide range of professionals who take part in InfoCamp. The conference is interdisciplinary and participants come from a wide range of fields and interests, including information architecture, informatics, library & information science, taxonomy, interaction design, user experience, user-centered design, online search, information management, technical communication, and human-centered design and engineering. Cadi Russell-Sauve ('10), who attended the first InfoCamp as a student, was thrilled that the conference includes librarians and their take on information issues. Many of the sessions reflect that approach. Collaboration was a repeated topic, ranging in contexts from academic libraries to physical prototyping for user experience design.

This was a year of transition for InfoCamp. The original core of volunteers are stepping back to let new organizers carry on InfoCamp Seattle. Volunteers like Russell-Sauve and current iSchool student Cortney Leach took over marketing duties this year and will work on planning and logistics for InfoCamp Seattle 2011. "We don't plan to get much bigger," Russell-Sauve reports. "Anything bigger will lose some of the spontaneity and community of it." And they'll be tweaking the format in response to how things have evolved. "This year, there were more presentations and fewer open discussions. We want to find ways to preserve time for back and forth discussion, either designating parts of the schedule for that, or just identifying a location whose spaces encourage it," adds Leach.

Meanwhile, InfoCamp founders Elkington and Louie are focused on helping other groups replicate InfoCamp in other cities. "We've always said, if you have to travel to InfoCamp, you should start one where you live," Elkington explains. The first InfoCamp Berkeley was held in March, organized by a combination of InfoCamp Seattle veterans and students from UC Berkeley's School of Information, with over a hundred attendees. Infocamps in Boise, Idaho; Columbia, South Carolina; and Vancouver, British Columbia are scheduled for next spring, and plans are starting for an event in Portland.

Hundreds of information professionals and students will be gathering in different cities to talk about their work, in a format dreamed up here in Seattle by a group of dedicated students and alumni. If that's not iSchool alumni leading the field, what is?