So before it all disappears into the mists of my increasingly forgetful mind here is my view of what happened and whether it mattered.
Before commenting on this year’s event I want to look back 4 years to the end of the AGI conference in 2006. Declining numbers of delegates, a separation between the conference and the industry, a London venue that made attendance unaffordable for many in the public sector and an agenda that seemed to have limited relevance to those outside of it. Add to that an industry that had been coasting, to some extent, on the back of the flood of funding from transformational government initiatives and that was not delivering the innovation that customers were craving. That’s a slightly harsh view which is purely mine and not AGI’s or anyone else’s (before the how dare you’s come flying in). I was of the opinion that the event did not any longer serve the AGI, the wider community or its sponsors (I had decided that my company would not exhibit at a future event under the same format) and perhaps foolishly told the AGI in my forthright manner.
Some wackos (aka far sighted people) in AGI then entrusted their flagship event to me and a largely new conference team (fortunately moderated by the common sense of the then new AGI Director, the outstanding Chris Holcroft). At our first team meeting I outlined to a somewhat stunned team my vision for an event that would be the base for building a community of people who use, research and earn their livings from geography – somewhat unoriginally we called it a GeoCommunity. Moving out of London, going residential, reducing to 2 days, not having a free walk in exhibition (“wow you can put dots on maps, can I buy some?” really wasn’t working anyway), limiting the number of sponsors, not giving away free passes, tough rules on sales pushes in presentations and big reductions in delegate fees and sponsor costs were just some of the changes that we took on (to be honest with some hesitation/reservation).
3 events on what have we learnt? Clearly we got more right than wrong, the numbers have grown to nearly double those in Islington, even in a very challenging financial climate delegates and sponsors see real value in supporting GeoCommunity.
The excitement building up to this year’s GeoCommunity and the number of returning delegates suggests that our aspiration to create a community has at least to some extent been realised. GeoCommunity was an unashamed celebration of all things geo with over 620 delegates spanning practitioners in local government, central government, utilities, business, education/academia, policy makers and the geoindustry.
Much has been made of the paleo meets neo sessions and dialogue – in my opinion we are moving beyond the mutual misunderstanding and distrust towards a recognition that we are all engaged in aspects of doing geography. It’s not that we do the same things, anymore than UI designers, web services architects and database people who all work in IT do the same things (and that is not suggesting that any technique or skill set is in any way more important than another) just that we all do geography. The geosolutions of the future will rely upon neo, paleo and a whole lot more. I think Ian Painter (winner of the Steven Feldman Georanter 2009 Award) just about summed it up in his brilliant 5 minute slot at the Soapbox which is worth a pause to watch
Although the Soapbox may have grabbed a lot of attention (next year we will need to find a bigger space and a wealthy geobeer sponsor) it was not the only new idea that we introduced at this year’s GeoCommunity. Probably the most significant change was the introduction of a geoweb stream that ran through the whole event. Watching so called “paleos” squeezing into these packed sessions validated Christopher Osborne’s and my belief that we could bring relevant and stimulating new content to the conference. I am not going to pretend that we are in the mutual love and admiration phase, I imagine that there are some who are horrified by the arrival of the “free data, free software” generation (nb “free stuff” still needs paid services or premium versions to support it) but there were also many potential users who were excited by the possibilities that geoweb offers them to deliver better services to their clients.
A big change this year compared to previous years was the online channel to the conference. The twitter tag #geocom was fizzing throughout the conference and continued for at least a week afterwards, the dialogue was both informative and at times critical of presenters, next year it would be great if the back channel could be visible on screens around the conference rather than just on the iPhones and Blackberries. We also ran the GeoCommunityLive blog which scooped up other bloggers pieces, the videos posted on youtube and the slide presentations went live within a couple of hours. I think it ran pretty smoothly despite the somewhat erratic wifi at the hotel (have to do better next year) and it enabled people who couldn’t get to the conference to track what was going on and hopefully decide to come to GeoCommunity next year.
So 2 days of love and maps came to a close with (in my opinion) an inspirational presentation from the Grammar School at Leeds which had all of the delegates on their feet applauding the 3 students (15,17 &17!) who had stunned most of us with their GI and presentational skills.
Was it a success? I think so. The early feedback certainly says so. After 3 years I think we have built a GeoCommunity that is vibrant and has the momentum to grow and flourish even in the difficult economic times that we are going through. With the digital channel, the hashtag and smaller events like the AGI Northern Where2Now event on November 10th there is the potential for the GeoCommunity to become a year round series of gatherings of varying degrees of formality and structure.
Does it matter? I think so. Geography has a massive potential to solve problems and realise opportunities, we all know this and some of us preach it regularly. Those of us who enjoy this stuff and work with it need a GeoCommunity to nurture us, teach us, give us a voice and to showcase our successes. We also need a place to look for a new job, a new customer, launch a product or company and catch up with old friends.
So 3 years after “mouthing off” at Islington I can say “Job done”.
A few people noted that I looked “quite emotional” as I gave my final address as chair to the conference – that was an understatement! It felt like when I was saying goodbye to my teenage son as he set off on his gap year travels around South America, a mixture of pride that he was ready to go off on his own and anxiety about whether he would be safe. It’s time for me to handover GeoCommunity to a new chair and team and to ask them to take good care of my kid.
So for me the party is over or at least as the fussing host it is. Next year I will be back at GeoCommunity as a guest and will be lapping up the hospitality.
See you there?