Thursday, November 20, 2014

unCon 2014 Recap: Views from an UnConference Neophyte

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the Mass Technology Leadership Council’s Innovation 2014 UnConference in Boston. I will start by saying I am an UnConference neophyte.  I fully admit I had no idea what such a beast the event was prior to attending; I did not even know what was involved. However, it turned out to be an amazing day of sharing knowledge, thoughts, and ideas with other technologists from around the area in a way that was engaging, interesting, and honestly more fun than any other conference I have attended prior.

Photo Credit: MassTLC

First, the logistics: how does one create an agenda for an UnConference?

The first unique aspect of the event I noticed was the lack of an agenda prior to arriving. All that was known were time frames for sessions and what rooms would be used, but there was no content defined. The only session with a defined agenda was the first one, aptly titled ‘Agenda Setting Session’. The room was full of attendees’ grouped in a circle. In the middle of the room there were two microphones and at the back, there were large poster boards with rooms and timeslots. People lined up from two directions at the microphones, each with a colored piece of paper in hand, and would propose a topic they would like to see discussed. The moderator then asked probing questions gauging attendees’ reaction to determine if this would be a popular topic of discussion. The person would then be sent to one of the coordinators to determine a time slot and room for that discussion. The piece of paper with the topic would be pinned to the appropriate location on the poster boards in the back. Multiple people were sitting on the floor in front of the poster boards with laptops, furiously entering the information as it was posted. Within moments, the agenda app on my phone (provided by the event coordinators) was quickly filling up with content.

Now mind you, this was happening at breakneck speed. The moderator reminded me at times of a barker at a carnival, talking quickly, getting consensus on a topic, and immediately moving on to the next person in line, alternating between the microphones. Within 45 minutes, my agenda app was full of topics for the days’ sessions with times and locations. I noticed in the next time slot that there was a session on ‘The Internet of Things – old and new’, which sounded like it might be interesting, so I headed to the room specified for the topic.

Just jump right in, feet first

On arriving at the specified ‘IoT’ room, I was impressed to notice that outside each meeting room was a small tablet device hanging on the wall proudly announcing it was powered by Roomzilla and displaying both the time, room number, and topic currently scheduled in that room – which I assume was courtesy of those people sitting on the floor with their laptops previously mentioned entering the data on the poster boards. In the room, there was the individual who had proposed the topic, Dr. Sheldon Borkin from StrategicAngles. The room quickly filled up and we started to attempt to do introductions, but the number of folks filing in made that problematic. Dr. Borkin explained the process: he would moderate the discussion, but that this was our session to talk openly on the topic; we, as a group, could drill down any additional areas we wanted to discuss. Dr. Borkin asked me if I would take notes and email them to the organizers-. I agreed as I planned on taking notes for myself anyway.

We then started on a very interesting and spirited discussion on the Internet of Things, covering a variety of topics, including such items as:
  • How do we setup the plumbing to facilitate all these devices?
  • How do we deal with security of the data?
  • Who owns the data? (very spirited discussion around this topic)
  • What do we do with the data? (analytics became a big discussion, which fed naturally into the next session scheduled for that room on data gathering and analytics)
  • How do we deal with product life cycle that might be measured in years?

The discussion topics were thought provoking, especially with regard to the last item. Bob Frankston raised the point in the context of medical devices, specifically implanted devices. This topic was near and dear to my heart, literally, as I had a pacemaker put in close to 10 years ago. In today’s fast pace world of technological changes, we easily forget there are some devices/technologies that must have a longer life span, a prime example being implanted medical devices. The software and the equipment that communicates with that device in my chest has to last more than a year or two, as constant surgery to implant the latest and greatest device is not a viable option. Planning for that and understanding the implications is critical in this particular area of the Internet of Things.

Brainstorming, crowd-sourcing ideas, and the feel of a tweetchat

The remaining sessions I attended throughout the day were just as energetic and enjoyable as the first. Being in a room and brainstorming with such amazing, diverse, technologically savvy talent from across a wide spectrum set this ‘UnConference’ apart. As much as I hate using the latest buzzwords, this really was ‘crowd-sourcing’ ideas and felt like a face to face version of a tweetchat (I have participated in many over the years). At the end of the day, all attendees went back to the same room the sessions were defined in. The hosts/moderators of the sessions reported back what the sessions were like and this recap was great because there were many sessions I was interested in that I could not attend.

Another upside to this ‘UnConference’ format was the large number of new people working in the technology space that I was able to connect and share ideas with. Overall, it was a great experience, great discussion and brainstorming of ideas and developing new contacts in the technology landscape of Massachusetts was invaluable. I look forward to next year, and will maybe even get up in line and propose my own topics/sessions!

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