Portrait of Edd Dumbill, taken by Giles Turnbull

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What I make

a conference management web application

XTech Conference
a European web technology conference

XTech 2007 schedule: behind the scenes

After a couple of months' hard work, I've posted the schedule for XTech 2007. And, though I say so myself, it looks good.

XTech 2007 grid

You can read more about the schedule itself over on the XTech web site, but I thought it would be interesting to explain how we got there.

The people bit 

After the call for participation, we wound up with 200 proposals in the system. From there, the target was to get down to 5 tutorials and 68 presentations.

Each proposal contains an abstract of at most 500 words. I enlisted a small army of reviewers (69 in all) to help, and assigned four or five reviewers to each abstract. 829 reviews were assigned in all. The reviewers work blind, so they don't get to see who the proposer is.

After the review, I read every score and proposal, and created a shortlist of the best scoring proposals plus those that had spuriously low scores given their quality. From this shortlist the hard graft of preparing a draft schedule started.

We had already decided in advance on our usual format: four parallel tracks of browsers, core tech, applications and open data. I then filled in the schedule, aiming to create themes for days, or at least for the 2-session blocks.

The draft schedule and details of those shortlisted but who missed the cut were circulated among the committee. After some iteration and feedback the final schedule emerged.

Picking tutorials was a little different, as this is done by myself and the committee directly. The constraints on choice are more commercially-oriented. Experience has shown we need mainstream topics that people will be happy to pay for. Even so, each year we try to include one emerging topic. Last year, it was Rails. This year, it's OpenStreetMap.

Choices made, I then notified the speakers, awaited their confirmation, and reached the point where we could publish the schedule.

The mechanics of it all

A glib reading of the above would make it all sound quite simple. And this year I'm pleased to report that it was a lot simpler than previous years. We have been able to use Expectnation from beginning to end, which has streamlined a lot of the work. 

Expectnation's my super startup that's taking up the time that XTech and fatherhood don't! I'm about to tell you why it's wonderful, so please forgive a little pride.

Gathering the proposals was easy once the CFP had been set up inside Expectnation. I set up three calls: one for presentations, one for tutorials, and a secret one that the public doesn't get to see. (We always need a secret one for people who have very good reasons why they didn't make the public deadlines.)

Request response

The review phase

Recruiting reviewers was done by Expectnation's request system. This lets me send a request to a large number of people simultaneously, and collect their responses via the web app. (Previously, this had involved email, spreadsheets and wasted time.) The chart you see to the right shows the breakdown of the response to this request.

If a reviewer said 'yes', they added a note to say which types of proposal they would review, and signed up for an account in the system.

I then passed through every paper assigning four or five appropriate reviewers. A quick search each time allowed me to look for the right reviewers, and ensure no one reviewer got overloaded with work.

Once reviewers were assigned, I headed over to the Mailroom department. Expectnation has a large number of configurable mailing targets, one of which is "reviewers with work to do". I emailed each reviewer with details of how to get on with the reviewing.

Every reviewer then logged into Expectnation, saw the proposals they needed to review, and used the interface to efficiently score the proposals. One big lesson here is that it needs to be very efficient if you want to get the best reviewers, who are often the busiest.

Another wizzy graph enabled me to keep track of the reviews, and the mailroom let me send out a reminder to those reviewers who hadn't finished their work yet, when the time for the close of reviewing drew near.

Picking the papers

Gridding out XTech 2007

Expectnation lets me sort and filter proposals pretty flexibly, so I went through the papers for each track in turn, ordered by their review score. Anything scored 3 or higher (4 is best, 1 is worst) was almost certain to be shortlisted. I read all the reviews and the abstract, and moderated any score that was unusually low (for some reason, reviewers rarely overrate proposals!)

The next step was to set up the empty grid, shown in the top half of the diagram to the right. Here I added the empty time slots to the rooms we had, and assigned putative tracks to each of the rooms (they can be swapped around later if needed.)

After that, the scheduling can start, shown in the second half of the picture to the right. Each empty slot can be assigned a paper from the shortlist for the relevant topic. That way it's easy to "paint on" talks into each room and quickly get a sense for the overall flow of the conference.

Once it was time to finalize matters, I mass-marked all the scheduled papers as accepted, which automatically sent a notification to the presenters, using the same request system as for reviewers. When a speaker confirms, their proposal status changes and they appear in the final public grid. From there, I am able to use the mailroom again to inform speakers of the information they need to know. Additionally, speakers can log into the system at any time to see when they've been scheduled to speak.

Gridding out the conference in Expectnation is probably the biggest timesaver of all. Previously this involved a lot of sketching on paper or a spreadsheet, and a lot of manual work notifying people, and then more work creating the timetable to go on the web site. Now, both the grid and a full web of abstracts and speaker details are generated automatically.

What next?

As you can probably tell, I'm rather excited about both XTech 2007 and also about the work we're doing with Expectnation.

What's next for XTech is the process of publicising the conference among attendees, recruiting session moderators, and also the writing of papers by the presenters. As the conference draws nearer, the attendee-level interactive features of Expectnation will kick in, allowing personal scheduling and rating of sessions.

What's next for Expectnation is that we're ramping up to our 1.0 launch. We're working with a handful of early adopter customers right now, and are always interested in new use cases. As we get nearer the end of the first tranche of engineering work, we're going to gear up the publicity effort and start explaining to the world why we're special.

As usual, I'd love to hear questions, feedback and suggestions.

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