Monday, July 30, 2012

Accidental Conference Planner Keeps the Design Skills Sharp

Old Google i/o Map
I have always been an active volunteer - my parents are to thank, from a young age we were all asked to give back to our communities.

Since moving to Baltimore, however, my volunteer activities have taken a very specific form, conference and some general event planning. So much so that many people think it is what I do for a job, full time.

As the events have grown, so too have the budgets to be fund-raised and the teams to be organized. I keep at it though because aside from doing something to support the growth and development of the Baltimore community and collaborating with really interesting people, it is an excellent entrepreneurial outlet that helps me to hone my design skills. 

Betascape 2012 is around the corner on September 22nd and 23rd 2012. It will be, quite an interesting event at the intersection of art and technology, bringing to Baltimore some super talented individuals such as Professor Hod Lipson of Cornell's Creative Machines Lab and developer & interactive installation artist Kawandeep Virdee.

What it really is for me though, as an organizer, is a fun way to practice my user-centric design skills outside of work. On its 3rd year now, Betascape has metamorphosed from a tent with tables of robots and stuff at ArtScape 2010, to a multi-venue talk/workshop and create camp in 2011, to finally a weekend-long exploratorium comprised of applied learning labs and some inspirational talks. And all of this change and development has come from significant user research in Baltimore, at similar events across the US, and with experts at the intersection of art and technology. Surveys, interviews and group discussions, albeit painful at times (super negative survey monkey respondents and the like), have shown us what artists and technologists really want and need. Then it just took a few brainstorm sessions over beers at Joe Squared to design an event that would deliver.

We had to create an event that met the needs of people who said that labs were too long and not long enough, the talks were too long, or not in depth enough, that there was too much too see and hear but the happy hour should get started in the early afternoon. That it is really easy to watch a you tube video to learn, but it would be good to have an event that made people want to learn how to use new technologies. After many bad ideas and a few forgotten good ones, over a series of weeks, the solution appeared, or rather was handed to us during a presentation from Hexagram (Concordia) at MICA.

So Betascape 2012 will be a weekend long experiential space - an exploratorium, a continuum of learning and organized lectures with resources at your fingertips, and a focus on tools and technologies that make it easier to create cool stuff.

We will of course, await the surveys post the event in September and the many conversations that will follow, but from the field testing we have done so far, it is pretty exciting to hear really positive feedback. It feels good designing something that people actually want, rather than finding a way to market what people don't really need.

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