Baking our cake and eating it too: the Drupal Uncamp

In the past 3 years the Twin Cities Drupal community has organized one of the best annual Drupal camps in the country. But still we find learning gaps -- people new to Drupal looking for help answering questions they haven't yet formed; advanced developers seeking challenges; self-taught site-builders wanting to understand if they've put the pieces together correctly. Staring at another 7 months before our next DrupalCamp Twin Cities, this past Saturday we hosted** the first ever Twin Cities Drupal Open House (TCD'OH!) in an effort to address the difficulty of being everything for everybody every time.

TCD'OH! was a one-day affair, lightly planned yet carefully designed to meet the specific needs only of the portion of the community that was inspired to show up. It exceeded our expectations and showed us new ways to interact and grow as a community. We chose to organize the event using the principles of Open Space Technology and mashing into the mix other less-loosely structured facilitation concepts like Pro-Action Café. The grand idea was to allow participants to explore what they really wanted and needed to explore with topics, questions and inquiry bubbling up from underneath rather than hewing to a pre-set, expert-driven, top-down agenda. Leveling the participation field encouraged new people as well as seasoned Drupalistas to bring their ideas and questions to the group.

We started the day gathered in a circle to review the TCD'OH! principles -- borrowed from Open Space -- and jumped right into a Pro-Action Café. The Café invites questioners to host tables where 3 separate rounds of 5 people help the host move progressively toward answering their question and defining next-step actions. Café ends back in the circle with hosts and participants reporting main take-aways.

Photo of Pro Action Cafe table host listening to discussion.

Right away we noticed that this format was inspiring the group to move away from traditional conference restrictions. Excitingly, 3 of the 6 Café hosts were new to Drupal -- one telling us he had first heard about Drupal just 2 days prior! Their first Drupal community experience was receiving focused feedback on their personal question from a group of 15 inspired fellow community members. I can't think of a better way of being introduced both to Drupal and the local community.

The rest of the day was set up to flow naturally from this initial experience. We had a great open venue, a former auto body shop now community arts facility with large open galleries, a theater and a conference room. 5 spaces (2 with projectors) were set up with flip-charts, markers, tables covered with paper and a chart divided into 1-hour chunks for participant identified discussion topics. People added Post-its to a centrally located master schedule and moved from space to space as they felt inspired to engage in the various discussions.

Topics varied from completely non-technical to hyper-geeky. Some examples -- "How do we incorporate Drupal into media literacy and technology programs for youth?"; "Freelancers Unite!"; "Porting a module to Drupal 8". We also set up a "genius" table where experienced Drupalers randomly sat to answer questions from anyone who cared to join them. As one participant noted, the overall experience felt akin to an entire day of just the "hallway track" interactions you encounter at a traditional camp or 'con.

Photo of participant checking out schedule board

TC Drupal Open House officially ended with a closing circle. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive with a side helping of constructive suggestions. At the end of the day, 3 things signaled to me that we're onto a great new format for our community:

  1. Our closing circle had as many participants as our opening circle -- 8 hours later.
  2. I spent more time making coffee during the day than I did facilitating process.
  3. Our usually quiet TC Drupal group site is brimming with new threads following up on discussions begun during the event.

Photo of participants in circle listening to report back.

I think we'll be doing more of these in the Twin Cities. We would love to share with other local groups what we did and what we've learned from the experience. We also welcome hearing from others who have experimented with unconference formats. Let's share and mash ideas together to improve future events. Let's make the Drupal Open House a new between-camp tradition.

* The amazing cake was lovingly baked from scratch by Alyscia Needham in celebration of Keri Poeppe's birthday.

** Thanks to Advantage Labs for hosting the event at Intermedia Arts. Thanks to Tim Erickson for coming up with the idea, organizing it into existence, and co-facilitating the day's proceedings. Thanks to David Needham, Wilbur Ince, Drew Gorton and Jeremiah Davis for logistical and moral support from conception to cleanup.


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