OKFestival: Shared Attention

The week before last I attended Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin organised by Open Knowledge (my lovely employers). The festival is the biggest open data and open knowledge event to date: global, inclusive and participatory.

Rufus Pollock opens OKFestival. Photo by Gregor Fischer from the official festival Flickr album:https://www.flickr.com/photos/okfn/14550151469/

Rufus Pollock opens OKFestival. Photo by Gregor Fischer from the official festival Flickr album:https://www.flickr.com/photos/okfn/14550151469/

It truly was a fantastic event and I’ve written two blog posts on it from the perspectives of my ‘projects’: Open Educating at OKFestival and OKFestivaling for LinkedUp.

As a remote worker meeting up with my colleagues, peers and community (or should I say communities) is always incredibly important. It really solidifies those relationships that sometimes seem fragile when you are sitting at different ends of an ethernet cable.

A colleague of mine, Lou Woodley, one of the OKFestival organisers, has written a great post [Lovely 2 C U – the importance of in-person events #okfest14] that reflects “on the importance of these flagship annual events to bring together people from distinct projects and communities, who mainly connect online during the rest of the year, or perhaps don’t connect at all with those outside their own community.” Lou is based in the UK but hoping to move to the US in the near future. I met her for the first time at OKFestival despite having spoken to her countless times via Skype!


Festival organisers, Lou Woodley in the middle. Photo by Gregor Fischer from the official festival Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/okfn/14756611213/in/pool-okfestival2014

It’s hard not to reproduce all of Lou’s post here as she hits the nail on the head so many times with her ‘7 factors that in-person events provide’ but I’ve restricted myself to a few of her spot on observations (read her post for more!).

She talks about:

Relationship building: Meeting someone face to face helps to deepen your relationship in terms of building trust and understanding (and a better appreciation of their quirky sense of humour that may have been less obvious online!). When you do this at scale, that’s a lot of goodwill being generated that can then help sustain projects and partnerships in the future.

So true – nothing builds a relationship more than being able to sit and have a beer with someone, chat and get to know what they are really like as an individual.


Getting things done: Remote working – and connecting – with others can have its advantages in terms of work-life balance and allowing you to choose your preferred location, but it may also be less productive. An increasing number of people live in cities because having everything (and everyone!) in close proximity allows us to get more done. So too with meeting face-to-face at an event like this. This benefit of face-to-face working was true for the three organisers too. We all live in different cities, but really benefited from the handful of occasions when we got together for a couple of days to push hard to reach key milestones for the project.

I don’t live in a city, I live off the beaten track, but Lou’s point about face-to-face working rings true. Taking time out to concentrate on working on something in particular is hugely helpful.

Shared attention – Meeting face to face isn’t only good for building trust and understanding, and getting things done. Having shared experiences to reference back to is also important for a sense of community spirit. So, a successful event programme needs more than sessions where people work together to do things in small groups. It also benefits from opportunities to sit together as a large group and put collective attention onto the same thing. The keynotes each morning at the festival were designed to do just that.

Group activities at OKFestival

Group activities at OKFestival, Photo by Gregor Fischer from the official festival Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/okfn/14736486182

Experiences are the most important part of getting to know people. I was a little gutted that OKFestival took place at the same time as the Institutional Web Management Workshop. IWMW is an annual event that I’ve attended (and been co-chair of) over the last 14 years, only missing when my giving birth (to each of my 3 children) got in the way. Many of the attendees have become good friends over the years and our shared experiences of each year’s special moments (such as the IWMW song, Brian Kelly’s capers and some of the best/craziest plenaries) made that happen. Fingers crossed different scheduling next year might allow me to attend both OKFestival and IWMW!

and let’s not forget…

It’s fun! And finally, for those of us that spend large chunks of our working lives online, it’s important to be able to have some more sociable “downtime” spent in person with our colleagues. The lack of watercooler chat that working remotely can bring – with no easy opportunity to pop out and get a coffee together – means that when you do meet face to face, there’s a lot of catching up to do. And what better place than a former brewery to work really hard together for a few days, and then to share a celebratory beer and slice of cake in the sun afterwards?

It was fun, a lot of fun! I love being able to spend my days up and moving about rather than sat rigid in a seat. Seeing new things and meeting fab people really is the best part of my job. Returning home feels a little bit of a come down.

So thanks to Lou for her brilliant observations. Events like this take a huge amount of organising (huge gratitude goes to the organisers Lou, Bea and Megan – who really put in the hours and devotion on OKFestival) and a lot of effort, but damn, they are so worth it!

Selling OKFestival T-shirts with my colleague Sally Deffor

Selling OKFestival T-shirts with my colleague Sally Deffor