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By Ray Villalobos | Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lessons learned from organizing a local BarCamp event

Photo of Downtownd Deland

A few months ago I decided to organize a local BarCamp in the Deland, FL area. It’s a small town with an old fashioned downtown district between Orlando and Daytona Beach. As the event came and went in early October 2012, we saw 163 registered people attend and over 20 speakers present. For a small town in Florida, it was a very successful first event.

If you’ve never been to a BarCamp, it is a fun and informal gathering of tech-minded people. Attendees are encouraged to present or help out in organizing the conference. I had never organized an event before, so I learned a lot from the experience. In this article, I share some of the lessons I learned, including a few of the online tools and choices I made when creating the website and mobile app for BarCamp Deland.

Lesson one: Asking for volunteer support

Putting together a tech event involves a lot more than can be handled by one person, so my first step was to gauge interest and potentially recruit some local volunteers to help coordinate the event. I casually brought the event up in conversation with people who I knew would be great speakers, helpers, and organizers, and who had the experience, resources, and access to others that could make or break the event. If some of these people were in my corner, I felt it would be much easier to get things done.

When asking for support, it helps to have a direct way to reach your event volunteers. Facebook was one way that worked surprisingly better than email for me. Your Facebook community usually consists of close friends and family, it provides a quick list of your immediate contacts, and people tend to respond quicker to Facebook Direct Messages than email. Facebook is also a helpful promotional tool as your event volunteers can help spread the word by sharing and liking the event on their personal Facebook pages.

Lesson two: Asking for sponsorship support

Since I had no prior event planning experience, I talked to some of my friends who had put together tech events in the past and asked for advice on how to organize sponsorships. There’s nothing like experience to show you how to do something, and these people gave me some amazing tips and contacts.

When asked about sponsorship, Jose Caballer from This Week in Web Design suggested I target potential sponsors who I had reasonable access to, and then supply them with a list of the following questions:

  1. What is the event (workshop, conference, seminar)?
  2. Who will attend this event? (List your demographic, their needs, and how many people you expect to attend.)
  3. What will your audience get out of this event?
  4. What will the sponsors get out of this event? (The best benefit is probably product awareness because sponsors want access to your attendees who are potential consumers of their products.)

Another friend, Dee Sadler of A Box of Pixels, told me to create a list of companies I love and ask them for support. I cold-called or emailed several companies, and while I never heard back from some, I was able to get a lot of giveaways, some software, and even money to help with the event. About half the sponsors I signed on for the event came from this list.

Lesson three: Building a responsive event website

The website for BarCamp Deland

To get started on the BarCamp Deland website, I first purchased the domain name barcampdeland.org. From there it was a matter of deciding what I needed my website to do so I could choose the necessary tools to build it. I knew the site would only have a few pages, and it was important to build a responsive site that didn’t take too long to put together. Considering my needs, I chose Bootstrap using LESS to build the CSS files.

I was surprised at how quickly I was able to build the BarCamp Deland website with Bootstrap. Instead of taking days to build the framework and scaffold the responsive template, Bootstrap gave me a great framework that allowed me to put the site together in just a few hours with virtually no JavaScript. Bootstrap is built with LESS, so that also made writing the CSS easier.

I managed the site build in GitHub, and I also placed my project in Dropbox as a secondary backup. While GitHub is superior for project management, one of the great features of Dropbox is its ability to perform incremental backups, which archive every saved version in a Dropbox folder. If you ever delete a file and want access to an earlier version, the incremental saving makes it super easy. This feature alone has saved my bacon more than once.

Certain information, like the list of speakers and sponsors, needed to be reused in different places but the site really didn’t warrant building a database, so I used mustache.js to build templates that pulled in a JSON file. Editing the JSON file, allowed me to quickly update the information on multiple pages and widgets.

I only needed to write a small bit of JavaScript to ensure the Bootstrap templates adjust and hide the third column when the users viewed the site on a smaller screen, and also used the jQuery Cycle plugin to handle fading and sliding some graphics, and the speaker’s promo on the homepage.

I used PHP, but just minimally, to divide my pages into small modules and to use the include() method to pull files in as needed. This allowed me to reuse modules on different pages and easily swap out content.

Online tools

Of course, organizing a BarCamp means having an event website, but it also means dealing with registration and emails.

For registrations, I used Eventbrite, which offers free events a complimentary account option that lets you build surveys, view metric reports, and email your registration list with event updates. Eventbrite also offers an Entry app, which is an easy way to check in people on the day of the event.

Eventbrite has many tools, including the ability to see metric reporting charts

Eventbrite also has a strong API and tools to integrate extras like a countdown and a registration form. Unfortunately, all the pages aren’t optimized for mobile devices so some elements (like the registration form) can be a little hard to navigate from a smartphone.

Mobile web app

The two parts of the jQuery Mobile app Unlike most conferences, BarCamp speakers aren’t prescheduled, which means most BarCamps have a dynamic schedule on a physical bulletin board that is adjusted in real time as speakers arrive and sign up for time slots and venue locations. Since our venues were very far apart, I wanted a schedule that attendees could check on their phones so they wouldn’t have to walk over to the bulletin board to see the speaker list.

I used jQuery Mobile to build the web app, which came in two parts. The first part of the app displays the dynamic schedule, as well as a list of venues and general information about the event. The second part is what allows organizers to enter the info about speaker time and location onto the schedule. Since all this info had to be stored and updated, I created a MySQL database and used PHP for MySQL access.

Conclusion

Overall, making the connections, planning the event, and working with an awesome team to bring BarCamp Deland together was really fun, and building the website was actually the easiest part. If you’re interested in using any of the code I mentioned for your own event, you can download it through GitHub.

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