Dispatches from the geospatial event circuit: Selling ice to eskimos

On my way to Germany I stopped by at the Geospatial World Forum 2012 which is being held in Amsterdam this week. It was certainly a very enjoyable day: many of the usual suspects were there, and it was great catching up with old friends and colleagues.

The guest keynote was an inspiring highlight. Former Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels spoke of his shock when, blasting into orbit, he realised that space – the frontier he’d been dreaming about all his life – was just a dark and scary void. It made him appreciate that it is not space but Earth which is special: a beautiful spaceship delicately wrapped in a wafer-thin blanket of air. Ever since his epiphany Ockels has dedicated his life to developing renewable energy and transport technologies. He also spoke of the need to energise young people. Except – there weren’t any young people in the audience. At 41, I was one of the youngest there.

Next up was a panel with the usual geo-industry luminaries. The first talk quickly descended into a vendor sales pitch and so I made my exit, heading for the trade exhibition.  But the floor circuit took no more than 5 minutes to complete: GIS, CAD, GPS, a few theodolites. Why would I want to buy any of this? But hey, I was able to grab a few pens to replenish my shrinking stock at home.

In the afternoon I dropped in and out of various themed sessions. Good idea to break the conference down into streams: it’s much better to talk about specific topics rather than just high-level benefits. So I dropped in on Energy, Mobile, and Open Source. And contrary to what you might expect from a traditional geo-conference dominated by old men, the open source session was totally packed. People were standing at the back of the room. Respect.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that I didn’t learn anything. The problem is that I don’t learn anything anymore when I attend a “traditional” geospatial industry event. There’s simply no information that you haven’t already learned elsewhere (usually online). Presentations are quite short, so speakers can only scratch the surface of what they want to share. Booths are manned by sales people who can’t answer detailed questions or run technical workshops. My office department, staffed by about 30 data professionals, has now reached a 50/50 gender balance but these industry events are run by old men, for old men, trying to catch up on what’s happening on the geo-technology front. What’s the bloody point?

Over the course of my career I’ve been to most types of geospatial events around the world, and I’m tired of them. They drain me rather than energise me. They still talk about the same issues as 15 years ago. They try to sell me stuff I don’t need, and most importantly, they don’t put me in touch with my customers because they’re not there. It’s more like going to a class reunion.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy class reunions. There are people in the geo-community who are very dear to me, and I love sharing a joke or a drink with them. But don’t make me pay over 400 euros for a bad cup of coffee in a windowless conference lobby. I can organise a drink with a contact in a much more pleasant location, for much less. And it will result in a more illuminating conversation than anything that can be discussed on a live stage.

So – having slaughtered a sacred cow – who’s up for a drink? Even if we pop open a €100 bottle of Château Lafite it will result in a 80% saving.

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4 thoughts on “Dispatches from the geospatial event circuit: Selling ice to eskimos

  1. When we set up WhereCampEU we were aiming for it to be an antidote to geo conferences, not sure if we succeeded in attracting a very different crowd, but it’s certainly a different kind of event format. I can’t make it to Amsterdam this weekend for this years unconference unfortunately.

    Of course you should really just come along to an OpenStreetMap pub session or mapping party!

  2. Thank you all for the many reactions (40+ on twitter so far), this seems to have become one of my most popular blog posts ever. Not that this means much, also considering that no one (so far!) has objected to my views. But it must have touched a nerve.

    The harder part, of course, is how to fix it. I agree with @rollohome that an inclusive, interactive approach works best. Workshop style events that enable lateral ideas to converge can be very effective and inspiring, especially if they also have a hands-on element (bordering on training & development). But I think they only work if you bring together people from very different backgrounds, and that is often lacking.

    Unconferences can be much more interactive but in my experience they can also be very hit and miss. And to keep costs down they often get scheduled at weekends, which can be tricky for some people. For now I’m sticking with drinks, as @stevenfeldman and @emapsiteJames have both suggested 😉

  3. Bang on! That’s why GeoRabble exists. So much going on outside the ‘professional’ dated conferences that a lot of us thought we could do better. GeoRabble has also branched out to a whole day conference called GeoNext and really tries to bring all the various geo threads and possibilities together to inspire and connect all types of users.

    More than happy to share our model and approach to help inspire your own event.

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