I’ve been working with repositories in various ways for over five years, so I have, of course, attended the major international conference Open Repositories before. I have never actually presented anything or represented a specific project at the event, though. This year was different. This year I had a mission - to present a poster on the DataFlow Project  and to talk to people about the work we had been doing for the past 12 months and (I hoped) to interest them in using the Open Source (OS) systems we had developed during that period.
Open Repositories is probably the largest repository-focussed conference in the world. It attracts delegates literally from around the globe. Because of its position as a major conference in this field, it attracts a high standard of speakers from many countries. Repositories themselves are still a comparatively new area in the information and research world, so this is a fast-moving and innovative area in which to work. Attending Open Repositories 2012  is very important for repository staff. They get a chance to share their work and see what everyone has been doing. The conference has always maintained a very practical element, with informal sessions, workshops and software-specific sessions run by the main systems developers in the field. People do not just come to listen at OR12, they come to participate. It is a very active conference. Perhaps because of the still experimental nature of much of the work, the community is very strong. Many institutions only support a few repository staff, so peer support is done online with people working in the same areas at different institutions. This has helped to build a strong and friendly community feel that is carried over into any ‘live’ event where people get to meet face-to-face. OR12 is no exception, and sending staff has two-fold benefits. First, it is an excellent event at which to showcase projects and new work to exactly the audience who will want to help, participate, use what you have done and give feedback. Second, it is the place to be to pick up on what is happening, to find those useful tools, valuable research data, latest trends and take them back to the workplace for implementation. Finally, and in some ways most importantly, it is a great opportunity to network, meet up with old colleagues and make new contacts. When you have staff working in a fast-moving area, the strength of the community benefits everyone.
Coffee time at OR12
Photo by Zealary via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/people/zaleary/used under CC licence
Open Repositories offered a further benefit in that the Repository Fringe event  was running as a strand of the main conference. The ‘Repo Fringe’ as it is affectionately known within the UK repositories community, is by way of being an institution. It has run for the past four years in Edinburgh, alongside the initial Edinburgh Fringe events but had been moved forward this year to run alongside the bigger conference. Obviously, with ‘Big Brother’ OR12 in town, this year was going to be a little different. The Repo Fringe is a more casual, un-conference event quite a bit removed from the highly organised nature of a large conference, and all the more welcome for that.
I had agreed to work with the Repo Fringe team to gather thoughts from people at the conference on how they would like the Repositories Fringe event to develop for 2013. This turned out to be a very positive experience, although to start with I did feel a little overwhelmed! Although I undertook this work to help and support the Repo Fringe event, it was a good icebreaker with delegates. Having met me as a ‘roving reporter’, delegates were interested to find out about what I was working on, giving me chance to chat about DataFlow. In addition, specifically asking people about their views on the Repo Fringe gave me a great introduction to what delegates found effective, both in event organisation and in content. From an organisation perspective, everyone was very keen on sessions that supported active participation. This was a valuable insight for forthcoming DataFlow events, as workshops and hand-on experience would work well for the dissemination of this project. Collecting thoughts on what delegates saw as the ‘hot’ topics for inclusion in the programme next year was a good way of gaining insights into what would be occupying people during the next twelve months. Throughout the conference, learning about the main trends within the repositories world was a valuable
The DataFlow Project is making it easier for researchers and research groups to manage, archive and publish research data files from 1Mb up to 100Gb. DataFlow has developed a two-stage data management infrastructure using DataStage , a networked file store and DataBank , a scalable data repository. DataBank is intended to be hosted by a university or research institute, to serve as the data-archiving and publication platform for a number of DataStage instances. It is in routine use by the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford. DataBank allows research groups to provide optimal visibility to their published data artefacts, whilst DataStage provides optimal support for the initial creation and local management of those data sets. DataStage and DataBank are designed to work in concert. However, because both use the new SWORD-2 repository submission protocol, have published APIs, employ standards (REST, BagIt and Zip), and encode metadata in RDF, they can also be integrated with other systems. DataStage is capable of publishing to any SWORD-2-compliant repository, while DataBank is able to ingest data published by any SWORD-2 client.
The software for both DataStage and DataBank is Open Source (OS) and packaged for ease of installation on an Ubuntu Linux system; users need pay only for local or cloud hosting. The projects are keen to see institutions download and try the software, and post their feedback to our discussion list or direct to the project manager . The Open Repositories 2012 Conference (OR12) seemed like a great place to interest people in our work. I also wanted to find out more about what everyone else was doing, and as the largest international conference about repositories, OR12 seemed perfect.
On the first day, I realised the conference had a huge number of delegates when they had almost run out of lunch options by the time I reached the front of the queue. But lunch also provided a good chance to catch up with colleagues from the project team who were also there to help promote our work. As we chatted, a couple of people came up and asked about the project, which seemed a good start. We told them about the posters and headed off to the afternoon sessions.
Evening networking was a good chance to talk about the project, and I had lots of interesting chats with delegates literally from all over the world about DataFlow, Open Source development and research data management. This was the biggest difference from previous years, having a personal agenda during the evening social events. I usually just drift, following up on speakers or areas that interested me during the day. I found it actually helped to have a more structured approach and a specific purpose at such a big event. As the conference was so vast, it was impossible to speak to everyone during the day. Instead, I spent the evenings catching up with people who were interested in DataFlow, making sure they had contact information and taking details of people who wanted more information sent out to them by our project manager, back at base. It was hard work, but also fun, and it was a real buzz to find so much interest in our project at an international conference.
Tuesday was our ‘big day’. In the afternoon we took part in the ‘Minute Madness’ poster pitch and the evening was the drinks reception held at the poster exhibition space. We had had two posters accepted by the conference, one explaining DataBank and one explaining DataStage, with both having information on the linking of the systems and the overall concept of DataFlow.
At the Minute Madness , I was pitching the DataStage poster. The idea behind the Minute Madness is to promote posters to delegates in a quick-fire session. Each poster has exactly one minute to tell everyone else about their poster and their work, and hopefully cram enough into the incredibly short pitch to interest people in coming to take a closer look at their work. The 60 seconds can be filled in any way teams think suitable, using images, sound, speech – anything that can get your message across quickly and effectively. The pitches took place in the late afternoon slot, and were followed that evening by a drinks reception where all the posters would be available for viewing. The reception would give us time to talk in detail about the project. All we had to do was use the MinuteMadness time well enough to catch their interest and get them to remember the project later.
Of course, identifying the key points is incredibly important when you only have 60 seconds to pitch in. After much discussion among the project team, we had decided to enter two posters to get across the idea that our project was made up of two systems that could be used together or separately, something we thought was a key part of our work.
Anusha Ranganathan doing her poster pitch in the one-minute madness
Photo by Nicola Osbourne via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/people/eurovision_nicola/ used under CC licence
My colleague, Anusha Ranganathan of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and one of the key developers on the project, was pitching the DataBank poster . Although I am used to speaking in public, I was quite nervous of only having a minute to speak and be clear. The session was great fun, though, with all the ‘pitchers’ sitting together in a ‘pit’ at the front of the theatre. As we were called up, our comrades-in-arms patted our backs and we gave loud applause and thumbs up to each other. Many of the pitches were funny, many very imaginative, all of them clear and a great advert for their projects and services. Anusha was fantasic, and came in spot on 60 seconds. I over-ran and fell foul of the dreaded 60-second whistle, but it can’t have been too bad as we noticed lots of people looking for the posters at the drinks reception. The reception was a great success, with lots of interest in the project. I was glad we had decided on two posters, as the project is complicated to explain. Part of the work has been in creating two systems that work together but also separately, so having two posters really helped to make that clear.
We focussed on paring the information down as much as possible, and trying not to cram too much into the minute we were allowed. Good time keeping was important, as presentations were ruthlessly cut off in mid-flow if they over-ran. You also needed to make sure you were not bombarding the audience with so much information that they got confused. The key to success was saying just enough, clearly enough, so people knew what the project was about and would be able to remember you and find you at the poster reception. Keeping it simple helped, as did keeping to time.
Anusha’s presentation worked so well because she hit the time exactly, so finished with a strong, clear statement of who would be interested in visiting us and why they would benefit. Humour was an integral part of proceedings, given that so many people were talking in such short pitches, and some of the best pitches incorporated jokes to get points across. This approach works well if you are comfortable with humour, but if you feel this is not your style, it is best to leave it alone. A more casual style is appropriate, and the friendly, informal mood that quickly developed in the session meant people naturally fell into a more relaxed delivery.
As an aside, working on describing the project in 60 seconds was a very valuable exercise in itself. It really honed down what we thought we were doing. It also highlighted not just the project successes but the things we had achieved that other people would be interested in hearing about and using. The time discipline made it hard work, but once you have got the slim-line version of your project pitch, it provides a really useful template from which to develop all your promotional material, because you have identified the essential message you want to give to people. Indeed, it would be invaluable to work on a minute-long pitch about your project before any conference, even if you are not presenting in that format. The benefits of being able to tell people clearly and concisely about your work in a very short time especially at a busy event.
Although the conference has always been international, it really felt as though it was world-wide this year. I spoke to delegates from Japan, Korea, India, the USA and, of course, most European countries. The Pecha Kucha sessions, which were run over three days of the conference as part of the Repo Fringe strand, rather emphasised this.
Pecha Kucha is a simple idea of 20 images with 20 seconds of ‘showing time’ per image. Originally a Japanese idea, Pecha Kucha is a fast, informal way of exchanging experience and ideas. These sessions are a regular and popular part of the Repo Fringe, and translated well to a bigger conference. They have a lot in common with the Minute Madness type of sessions, although there is a little more time to talk. They offer the same kind of benefits for promoting projects but need more of a specific focus to make them work well. Ideally, they should ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’, meaning that the best sessions leave the audience knowing something they didn’t know before. A good approach is to ask a question and answer that question in the session. Given that each slide is only shown for 20 seconds, images work much better than complex, bullet-pointed slides. Most Pecha Kuchas will have the images for each session changing automatically, changing after 20 seconds, so it really does pay to practise in advance. That said, the sessions are fun and informal. Everyone appreciates the challenge of the tight delivery time, and humour and goodwill are key components of any session. For OR12, I found the Pecha Kucha sessions were a useful way of identifying new trends and projects and people to whom I wanted to talk about DataFlow. They gave a really varied and accessible view into what is happening in repositories across the globe. I like these ‘taster’ type sessions at large conferences as they make it easy to identify the speakers you want to follow up on later. With such a packed programme and over 460 delegates, it just was not possible to go to every session, but the Pecha Kutchas made me feel I was not missing out on anything.
A memorable Pecha Kucha can get lots of attention at a bigger event for individual projects. Time and other commitments meant DataFlow did not enter a session, but having seen the benefits of giving an informal summary to delegates, I would definitely make sure that I participated in future when I have a project or idea to share.
With large conferences, it pays to look at ahead at all the sessions and plan ahead. However, it is also useful to stay flexible at the event itself so you do not miss any opportunities. For the DataFlow Project, based as it is on software development, the Developer Challenge at OR12 was a great chance to showcase the talented developers who had worked on the systems.
Ben O'Steen, Mahendra Mahey (DevCSI, UKOLN) and Richard Jones
(Photo by Zealary via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/people/zaleary/ used under CC licence)
Although neither of them won the challenge, they were both highly commended and will both continue to develop the ideas. The winner was Patrick McSweeney of the University of Southampton. Patrick’s idea involved a set of tools which turn a repository into a data management and visualisation suite with a simple provenance model .
The Developer Challenge created a great buzz at the conference and having two developers from the project getting so much individual interest really helped to raise the profile of the project. It was a way to demonstrate the quality of our work, which can be very challenging when the deliverables are software systems that nobody is going to install and configure on the spot. Demos are great for giving people a flavour of the work, but they are just that – demonstrations. Showing the skills that went into the project via the Developer Challenge was a creative way of illustrating a different side of project work that is essential but often not visible.
Staying flexible and continuing to look at how you can promote your project once you are actually at a conference means you can identify opportunities and respond to them. The key to making the most of such opportunities is to be able to report on them quickly. For DataFlow, the Developer Challenge was the unexpected opportunity that really raised our profile. The other part of the promotion equation is, of course, making the most out of such opportunities by making sure interested people get to know about what you are doing. Social media offers a great way to keep promoting your project with a ‘drip-drip’ approach before, during and for a period after, the conference. For DataFlow at OR12, we used a combination of Twitter and blogging to transmit the activities of the project team at the conference. During conferences, the combination of tweeting and blogging is very strong.
Starting with Twitter, most conferences now have an official event hashtag for Twitter use – the tag for OR12 was #OR2012. By tagging any tweet relating to the conference with this hash tag, your tweet automatically joins the main ‘stream’ of tweets about the conference. The stream will be followed not just by people at the conference (a valuable audience to reach) but also by many people who are unable to attend the conference but still want to follow what is happening. By tweeting information about your own project and related areas you can let those interested know what your project is about. Make sure also to tweet links back to relevant sections of your main project Web site when mentioning your project, so people can click through to read more.
In addition to tweeting, blog posts allow you to expand on what is happening, sessions your project is involved with, high points of the conference and anything else ‘news-worthy’ about your project at the conference. Just as important as writing the post is to include photographs so people start to put a face to your work and links to presentations so people can read about your work later. Make sure people know who to contact for more information and for further discussion too. Once you have a blog post up and published, tweet a short introduction and a link to the post. The tweet will give people the opportunity to click through and read more and will allow events organisers to pick up on your post and link back to it from the official conference blog and/or Web site, another valuable channel for dissemination.
Social media, though, are just one part of the ‘informal’ side of a large conference. Many face-to-face options happen throughout events. Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions, where like-minded individuals meet to discuss specific topics, are often organised during the conference rather than planned ahead. Look for any BoF sessions that could be relevant to your project and go along. If nothing is really addressing the burning topics your project raises, start your own session and get others to sign up. Keep it useful and relevant, though, not just a straight talk about the project but a chance to discuss the wider issues that lie within your areas of work.
Some conferences also have time and space for demo sessions or practical workshops where you can show your work to delegates. Again, these can be available on an ad hoc, informal basis during the conference. If you have interest from delegates for a demo or workshop, speak to the conference organisers about taking a room or part of a room for an informal session – they are usually happy to accommodate additional exchanges of information providing they have the space available.
Thinking outside the formal presentation ‘box’ can give you a lot of more creative and eye-catching opportunities to get the attention of delegates. You can also target your audience more specifically and look to talk at greater length and in more depth to people who are really interested in your work through informal sessions. The short sessions like the Minute Madness and the Pecha Kucha work well for more broad dissemination and are very worthwhile. You never know exactly when someone might remember your project, maybe long after the conference, and get in touch with you.
The other side of participating in a conference is to find out about the work of other people. For a project, this is important on a number of levels. Firstly, potential contacts can be identified by attending sessions on other projects to find out how they might fit with your own work. For managing to get to everything of interest at a large conference, planning really is the key. Planning which sessions to attend and sharing them among colleagues using a combination of the conference programme, the poster Minute Madness session and the Petcha Kutcha sessions means you can identify the most relevant topics and make sure someone is there.
As with your own dissemination, don’t just look to the formal papers. Many informal sessions can be just as informative and may even be better for networking. Reporting back to colleagues and the wider project team is important too. It is worth considering encouraging colleagues to write blog posts on general sessions and observation. This helps your own project team but can also be useful to share among the wider community. Having agreed channels for different kinds of information is also useful. For example, we have a project team email list for keeping everyone up-to-date so new information and questions can be posted and shared there.
Time is always the problem with reading up on new things, so an afternoon immersed in the latest projects is a welcome opportunity. I attended the text mining workshop  which was really useful. Text mining is an area I do not know much about, but feel I should know more. As a novice to text mining, I was delighted that all the speakers put their work in context. There were lots of practical examples, demos and videos to illustrate their presentations. It was a great way to learn a lot in a short time, and of course I started to think about DataFlow and how we might adapt some of the work I had seen to enhance the systems.
It is impossible to mention everything at this event, but highlights were the Developer Challenge, the Hydra Project and developments surrounding SWORD2 .
Although I was unable to make the main Hydra  workshop on Tuesday morning, I soon picked up on the buzz around the project. The Hydra vision is of one back-end body - a digital repository – with many front-end heads – tailored applications designed for specific user communities. It reflected very faithfully the main topics arising at the conference and created a lot of interest. From the perspective of my own project I was delighted to discover another project working with a similar vision of both open source development and bespoke features for end-users. There were many people interested in how we could link up the work of the projects, and this is something I will definitely be taking back to the DataFlow Steering Committee.
SWORD2  was another interesting aspect of the conference. DataFlow worked to integrate SWORD2 into both Databank and DataStage, so I was very keen to see what was going to happen next. I was really pleased to learn that the team has been granted extended funding to investigate data deposit scenarios, something of great interest in the future .
The other benefit of going to a large conference is picking up on what everyone is talking about and what ‘hot trends’ are being identified. This is important to do in addition to the more formal listening and participation in specific sessions about individual projects as it gives a flavour of what might come. The formal presentations are about what has happened and what it happening now. The informal trends being discussed between sessions are all about what might be next, what is going to be happening in the future. In terms of picking up a feel for whether your current work is going to stay relevant and identifying in which directions it would be most useful to develop your work during at least the next 12 months, the ‘hot gossip’ is the best indicator.
This year, there was much talk of Open Access (OA) and a general feeling that the issues were breaking out of the repositories community and were starting to be discussed on a much bigger stage. For the UK, the Finch Report  is an obvious driver, but the increasing importance of OA seemed as relevant for delegates from other countries too.
Linked data and text mining, and their usefulness in the context of a repository are perennial topics of discussion, but this year things seemed to be more advanced than anticipated. More people seemed to be actually integrating tools with repositories and assessing their usefulness from practical experience. It was a very positive conference in that way, as I seemed to see and hear about so many things, big and small, that had actually been done rather than discussed in theory. In fact, when talking to people about DataFlow, the most frequently asked question was ‘can I do X with it?’, which was most encouraging.
There was much speculation about what repositories actually are, whether their user interfaces are something the end users actually need to interact with or whether it would be more useful for repositories to become invisible to users - and even if they were still needed. The formal presentations and informal conversations around this topic focussed heavily on what I think was the one big theme - systems integration. This was driven in part by the surge in implementations of Research Data Management (RDM) systems and Research Information Management (RIM) systems.
Linking the databases together that hold the three strands of core information – scholarly works, research data supporting those publications and the information about funding – makes sense. However, there was much discussion about how the integration could and should be achieved. The idea of the ‘invisible repository’ has been around since 2011, first used by William Nixon of the University of Glasgow to describe his vision of an embedded repository . The recent drive to establish RDMs and RIMs has expanded on this concept to include the repository as one of the three main systems, whether it is visible or not.
A great driver in the UK is the Research Excellence Framework (REF) , which will require information gathered from all three of these core areas. One of the benefits of an international conference, though, is being able to put UK motivations within a global context and it was interesting to find that even without the REF, most countries are focussing on using the combination of scholarly works, research data and research management information. There was much talk of budget cuts, not exactly a surprise, but useful to see that this was having a global effect, so we could pool ideas and look for possible solutions together.
For many projects, time for meeting up face-to-face can be brief. DataFlow is no exception, with the team based in various locations and keeping in touch via Skype conference calls, wikis and email. Attending a conference, then, can give a project team a great chance to get together for a few days. Although not everyone from our project attended, we had enough people to make informal meetings possible and valuable. Being away from our usual work environments was also a useful opportunity to talk without the interruptions of the workplace. We were quite informal in our approach, and had decided ahead of time on the people who would do the pitch for the posters and who would be with each poster at the reception. We got together to discuss the sessions we had attended and to update each other on new contacts. We also passed on contacts among ourselves if a contact needed more detailed information from a specific team member. We had planned ahead of time to have someone back in the office who could field email queries and send out additional information to new contacts, and in the rush of a large conference this was invaluable and something that is well worth taking time to sort out ahead of attending a large event.
The main lesson learned in this area is that more co-ordination and planning is good. We did some pre-planning, but the conference was such a large event, with so many delegates, that it was difficult to know if you had managed to talk to everyone and made yourself available to everyone who wanted to discuss the project. A more organised approach to blogging and dissemination in general would be good. Again, we had planned ahead, but there was so much to cover and to get out in a short time that a more detailed media plan would be very useful in future. Updating members of the project team not at the conference was largely done through the project email list and via blog posts. A daily de-briefing on a more formal basis would help another time to make sure we captured everything we wanted to report back. I felt, for example, that my own focus was maybe too much on reporting back contacts and questions and would have benefitted from more reporting back on trends and specific sessions. However, there is always time post-conference to digest all the information and report back at a more leisurely pace, so all is not lost.
In fact, the reflective time after the conference is a good point at which to review the benefits of attending as a team. The large conferences run extremely tight schedules and packed programmes. With so many parallel sessions, it is impossible for one person to cover everything, so sending a team ensures that key sessions are attended and reported back. The same is true of networking, whether for specific dissemination or generally making contacts. For using the conference as a launch for dissemination of a project, a team is essential. The cross-project skills can be represented, along with specific areas of expertise and this can open up new opportunities for more creative dissemination, such as the Developer Challenge. In addition, sharing important jobs like tweeting and blogging means that covering the essential sessions is possible. Dividing up the presentations and networking really does mean that your project can have far greater impact, and add up to benefits for the project both in dissemination terms and also in terms of information and contacts brought back to the project that are far greater than the sum of the parts.
From the perspective of my DataFlow effort, I found OR2012 a very engaging conference. I went to OR2012 with an agenda, and I came away happy to have worked through it. I think the DataFlow Project was a good fit for the themes of the conference this year. Two of the main themes in particular - enhancing repositories with additional tools/applications and system integration – touched directly on the work of the project. As a result, the project team had a lot of discussions about how both DataBank and DataStage could be integrated within existing systems, and how they could be implemented and built upon. The conference was a really good place to promote the project and tell people within the repository world what we had been doing, and why. It was also a great place to go and listen to what everyone else was doing, and take back new ideas. As the ultimate aim of the DataFlow Project is to deliver two working, open-source systems to the HEI community, and encourage further community development of both, seeing where our work might fit into the future is essential.
OR2012 delivered a great international conference to both show and learn. I would encourage anyone with a related project to promote to consider going to Open Repositories to share the work and gather inspiration and knowledge for future developments. The next conference, OR2013, will take place in Prince Edward Island, Canada in July 2013 . I’d really like to be there. The OR2012 team produced fantastic coverage of the event through their live blog, a really great resource for checking on any sessions if you could not be there or missed anything during the conference .
Stephanie Taylor is a library and information consultant and trainer/facilitator with a background in academic libraries and over 15 years of experience in the library and information sector. She also worked for around five years on the ‘dark side’, as a project manager & engineering team leader for a library software company. She occasionally uses that experience to write documentation and wrangle developers for HEI software development projects.
Her main interests are in all things digital library, social media, digital copyright, repositories, Open Access and Open Development. She can often be found talking about these topics along with knitting, chocolate and cocktails on Twitter as @criticalsteph
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