My involvement in the municipal election a couple of weeks ago left me with a buzz of positive energy that inspired me to keep the momentum going and get out and do something constructive again as soon as possible. Luckily for me, a Tweet about the 2011 Vancouver Change Camp (“a unique event to learn, share and connect with change makers in the city”) popped up in my feed mid-week and I signed up on a whim, despite some uncertainty about what the day might entail and what a scientist might be able to contribute to it. However, I knew one thing for sure – that I’d meet some new and interesting people!
That proved to be the case – and then some. I went home on Saturday with my wallet full of business cards and my brain positively crammed with new ideas, including some thoughts about how I might let the momentum carry me even further in the new year.
After registering and meeting my first few Very Interesting People (including one of my fellow Vision Vancouver scrutineers from my polling station the week before! Someone else recognised me by my Twitter handle – a first for me!), I joined in the opening session. This included a very thought-provoking discussion of the nature of change – the take-home message for me being that all changes come at some cost, and may shift the existing burden onto groups of people who didn’t sign up for this new direction – followed by some ice-breaker activities. I usually find such things to be somewhat cringeworthy and/or intimidating, and was cynical in this case too, but the methods they used proved to be much more effective than I’d anticipated and were a great start to the day. The same was true for the group sing-along that was used to kick off the afternoon session – surprisingly fun and effective!
The rest of the camp used the “unconference” model, in which sessions are proposed on the day by participants, grouped into categories of similar ideas, and then slotted into the schedule. I’d never attended an unconference before, but all the Science Online and other unconference posts I’ve read, and Eva’s blog in particular, had prepared me well – although not quite well enough that I wanted to join the queue of people waiting to pitch their own ideas!
There were so many interesting options to choose from, and as it happened I kept ending up in one of the smaller groups in each session. This suited me just fine though, as we were able to focus more on the topic at hand and to hear more from each participant. My first session was on the gamification of activism, i.e. using real-life massively multiplayer games to connect people with the city and with each other. One example given was an apparently quite well established game in which you run around the city centre not knowing which other people are playing and which are just going about their usual activities. Players are given a set of code phrases, with for example “I like your coat” meaning “I’ve caught you: you have to follow me and do what I say from now on”. If you happen to use the phrase on a non-player, well, hey, you just made the city a nicer and more positive place! People threw around some great ideas about involving the Vancouver public library, city archives, park board, and other organisations, and I was more than happy to add my name to the mailing list for future involvement in this officially hellafun project.
The next session I chose was on using social media in general, and humour in particular, to reach the younger generations and to get them involved in voting and other worthy activities. The guy who’d pitched the session had been involved with the excellent Shit Harper Did website, which I may have linked to once or twice in previous posts, which was very cool! Again, it was a smallish group that generated lots of great ideas, and I was even able to contribute! We were asked to provide examples of social media outreach that had worked well; one participant talked about a fundraising concert for high school students he’d worked on that had a Twitter feed as a key component of the event, so I mentioned the success of “I’m a Scientist, get me out of here” and how much our very own Stephen Curry and other participants of my acquaintance had enjoyed it. Everyone seemed very interested, and a few people (including the Shit Harper Did guy) promised to check out the website. (I also mentioned a vaguely-remembered 1980s BBC programme for kids that used a phone line to introduce a “Choose Your Own Adventure” element to the plot… does anyone else remember this?! Imagine how cool this could be if they did it now, with Facebook and Twitter etc. as the input medium! I remember that my sister and I tried to call the line a few times to pitch our suggestions for the next episode, but never got through…)
The session immediately after lunch posed my biggest dilemma. Should I go to the “keeping politicians accountable” session, a subject close to my own non-scientific interests, or to the “cancer prevention” one, to which I’d be able to contribute more confidently and with actual experience and expertise? I chose the latter, and was glad I did; it was the smallest group of the day, and (after stating up front that I work for the Cancer Agency but was there in a purely personal capacity and that nothing I said should in any way, shape or form be taken as official policy) I was able to answer lots of excellent questions from the participants. I kept apologising for dominating the discussion, but everyone told me to keep going! We talked about viruses and vaccines, genetics, lifestyle, pesticides and other pollutants, you name it – but I think the most important part of the discussion was on the difficulty of getting funding for and basing your publication record (and therefore your career) on extremely complicated, decades-long studies that involve thousand of participants. As soon as I’ve finished this post I’ll be writing an email to the person who pitched the session, who I believe has more questions for me!
Our next task was to write down a single phrase on a piece of card that summed up our impression of the day so far and our ideas for next steps. I chose something a very cool high school student had said in the social media session: “it’s all about connecting ideas with resources”. We then had to hold our cards up as we walked around the room in silence, searching for people with similar cards with whom to form a group. In this way we organically formed several groups of like-minded people for the final session of the day.
The aforementioned high school student was in my group, and was delighted that I’d chosen her quote for my card! The discussion got very intense very quickly, and unfortunately I missed the middle of it as I had to take a phone call I couldn’t ignore; when I came back to the room I’d lost the thread a little, and took a back seat for the rest of the session. However, when compiling a list of everyone’s skill sets, my contribution of “grant writing” generated audible interest, as it also had in several one-on-one conversations! Now, whether I have the time and energy to work on grants for any of the people I met that day, even if they are working on an application that wouldn’t put me in a conflict of interest situation with the day job, is another matter…
All the groups came back together for the final wrap-up session, in which we sat on the floor with paper, crayons, tape and scissors to put together a visual summary of the day and of our vision of the Vancouver of the future. I suck at drawing and completely blanked (can you spot me blanking in this photo?), but at the very last minute drew some stick figures that were supposed to represent people coming out of their own little boxes and coming together. (This was a bit rich for someone who spends 99% of her time on transit with iPod ear buds surgically attached, but whatever…) Luckily, one of our team was clearly much more artistically gifted than the rest of us, and managed to assemble our combined scribblings into something that didn’t suck!
The event ended soon thereafter, and I made my way home exhausted yet energised. I’m glad I went in with an open mind and no expectations other than meeting interesting people – the event exceeded my expectations, and I met several people I’ve already contacted for one reason or another, including one person who might just be able to help me find some good political volunteering opportunities! People who’d come in with more specific expectations seemed to have a different experience: I heard one guy exclaiming his joy that he’d just met the absolute perfect person to help him move his project to the next stage, but someone else I talked to at the end of the day seemed very disappointed that the discussions hadn’t developed the way he’d wanted, and that he hadn’t met the right people. He definitely seemed to be the only disappointed person I talked to, though!
In summary, I’m so glad I went, and hope to return next year – perhaps with a friend or two and an idea for my own session! That will all depend on what, if anything, develops from this year’s event though… watch this space!