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Reflections On PublicMediaCamp

On October 17-18 in Washington DC we held our first national PublicMediaCamp. I'm proud to say that it completely exceeded my expectations. Held in conjunction with PBS, American University's Center for Social Media and iStrategyLabs, PubCamp brought together more than 250 people from across the country, including bloggers, social media enthusiasts, techies and staff from around three dozen public media stations.

Following the model of BarCamp and PodCamp, PubCamp was organized, as it were, as an unconference. We encouraged participants to brainstorm session ideas on a wiki prior to the camp, but the schedule itself wasn't created until each morning's opening session. Anyone who wanted to lead a session had to announce it to the entire group; volunteers wrote down the session titles and gave them to me for placement on a paper chart mapping out which rooms and time slots were available. If you've never attended an unconference, it might come as a surprise that this method of event planning (or lack thereof) could actually work, but we ended up spawning more than 50 sessions over both days of the camp. Very few of these sessions were your typical conference PowerPoint presentation. in many cases, the session leader would make everyone rearrange the chairs in a circle so everyone could participate equally, which was heartening given the fact we tried to emphasize that attendees should see themselves as full-fledged participants rather than passive audience members.

The sessions themselves covered a range of issues, from strategies for stations to work with local bloggers to mobilizing volunteers during natural disasters. Many of the sessions managed to wrangle someone in the group to serve as official note taker; we've assembled these notes on the PubCamp wiki.

PubCamper John Proffitt put together this video capturing some of the scenes from PubCamp:

Some of the big ideas that've been on my mind since PubCamp:

Emergency response. Many stations are grappling with the question of how to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies, both in terms of providing useful information to the public and keeping their operations running. A number of representatives from stations in the southeast participated, which led to a number of conversations on dealing with hurricanes in particular. Stations expressed interest in putting together a real-time drill to practice how they respond to such events. To avoid confusing people with an actual disaster, we thought about using a zombie attack as the subject of the drill, though they'd still have to remind people it's a drill — just in case. :-)

Station-blogger relations. One of the most intense sessions of the camp occurred on the first day, when a discussion about stations working with local bloggers led to a debate about the nature of that relationship. On one side, some public media staff advocated a more arms-length approach, occasionally utilizing blogger content when relevant. On the other side, bloggers (and some public media staff as well) advocated a more direct partnership approach, where they have an ongoing editorial relationship with stations around a given content product. Blogger Jessie Newburn wrote up a very interesting summary of the debate, breaking it down on generational lines.

Volunteer management. Several sessions raised the possibility of creating a public media volunteer corps, an idea that I've been thinking about since working on the Hurricanes08.org and VoteReport projects last year. One question that came up a lot was what tools are available to manage volunteers locally and nationally. Julia Schrenkler of American Public Media said she'd explore the possibility of incorporating volunteer management tools into their Public Insight software, which allows the public to volunteer and serve as subject-matter experts for reporters.

User generated content curation. One of the biggest themes from PubCamp was the question of how to curate user-generated content. Our experiences last year with VoteReport and related projects demonstrated that it's possible to create a system for both ingesting UGC from a variety of sources, as well as getting volunteers to help curate the content. But we still don't have a set of generic tools that makes it easy to ingest, curate and display UGC, whether it's for a station reporting project or a major breaking news event. There was a lot of interest in the development of tools like Swift, an open source spinoff of our VoteReport project that's attempting to tackle some of these challenges. Swift aims to ingest UGC from a variety of sources and then allow curation through a combination of people reviewing the content and machine-based algorithms. Whatever form these tools take place, it seemed clear that a range of toolsets would ultimately be needed at the local and national level.

Creating an "Apps for Public Media" contest. Ever since we started to plan PubCamp this spring, I've been thinking about what public media can learn from software-building contests such as Apps For Democracy and Apps For America. These contests encourage people to develop free software with a community focus, using locally available APIs and data. Given the fact that NPR has its own API and PBS is working on some of their own, a contest might be an interesting way of encouraging development using those tools. We got some useful feedback at PubCamp on the idea. For example, while such a contest probably should encourage the development of local apps, it's probably not realistic to expect stations to run their own contests. Others suggested that an apps contest should include specific challenges, such as developing apps for the 2010 midterm election. They're definitely ideas worth considering if we choose to move forward.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from PubCamp is that this really is the beginning of something. The 10 stations we brought to PubCamp on scholarship have all agreed to host their own camps in 2010, and a number of other stations are likely to organize their own as well. To help them pull it off, we've published a PublicMediaCamp Field Guide, which includes step-by-step instructions on how to use unconferences as a model for stations to engage their communities. We also held a PubCamp 101 session to explain the field guide in greater detail, which John Proffitt also recorded on video:

All in all, I think our first national PubCamp was a great success. Despite the fact we had some of the worst weather in months, combined with all sorts of road closures, we managed to attract an amazing and diverse crowd. Now let's see if we can take that momentum and convert it into real collaboration at the local level.

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