[OSGeo-Conf] Analysing the downfall of FOSS4G 2011

Cameron Shorter cameron.shorter at gmail.com
Mon Aug 13 13:07:30 PDT 2012

The international FOSS4G 2012 conference, which was scheduled to be held 
in Beijing in Sept 2012, was cancelled 
<http://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/discuss/2012-July/010519.html>. This 
has been a disappointing setback for our OSGeo community, and here I 
proposed to capture some of the key events which lead up to this 
cancellation, and with our hind site perspective, identify areas we can 
change to make future conferences more resilient and successful.

The intent is to start this conversation on the OSGeo Conference email 
list <http://lists.osgeo.org/mailman/listinfo/conference_dev>, then move 
to the FOSS4G 2012 Lessons Learned 
<http://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/FOSS4G_2012_Lessons_Learned> wiki page as 
ideas start to consolidate.

I'd like to start out by laying out some discussion ground rules. In 
particular, please avoid letting this discussion break into a witch 
hunt, or blame game. Remember that almost all people involved in FOSS4G 
2012 were volunteers, giving of their precious time freely. Instead, 
please identify an event or decision, discuss the implications of the 
event, and ideally follow up with some recommendations on what we can do 
in future.

    Host City Selection

Prior to 2012, OSGeo's Conference Committee had agreed to a 3 year 
rotation for the location of FOSS4G conferences, which went:

  * Europe (2010)
  * North America (2011)
  * Rest of the world (2012)
  * Europe ...

The bid process involves cities providing a light, 2 page, "Letter of 
Intent", followed by a comprehensive bid if the "Letter of Intent" was 
approved. However by Letter of Intent deadline for FOSS4G 2012 there 
were no Letters of Intent 
The deadline was extended, and Letters of intent were received 
from Rome (Europe), Prague (Europe), Hanoi (Asia), and a late entry 
from Beijing (Asia).

This was summarised 
by OSGeo Conference chair,

    What happened is that we did not receive any submissions before the
    initial deadline, and then we opened the bidding to all areas, and
    then we received 1 submission from the desired region and 2 from
    Europe, and then a second late submission from the desired region. 

    My opinion is that the stated desired region is in fact still the
    desired region, and that all OSGeo conference committee members
    should keep this information in their head as they vote. (meaning:
    all 4 letters are an option for this voting stage, but the preferred
    region is 'anywhere other than NA or Europe') 

In the end, only Prague [Europe] and Beijing [desired region] submitted 
a full FOSS4G bid, and when it came to a final vote, the OSGeo 
Conference committee was 
<http://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/conference_dev/2011-August/001394.html> split 
<http://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/conference_dev/2011-August/001398.html> between 
a bid from a more experience team in Prague, and following OSGeo's 
established rotation with Beijing. In retrospect, we should have put 
more emphasis on selecting the experienced FOSS4G team.

As has been noted by some [ref?], European and North American 
conferences have traditionally attracted more delegates and sponsors, 
which makes these conferences:

 1. More financially profitable
 2. Less financially risky
 3. Reach more people (although not necessarily reaching more regions)

As we move forward, we may wish to favour selection of committees and 
cities with prior experience of holding local or regional FOSS4G events 
before being awarded an international event.

    Competing regional conferences

In 2011, major regional conferences started in both Europe and North 
America, which competed for international FOSS4G attendance, along with 
some FOSS4G conferences from the region. It was debated whether OSGeo 
should support and encourage these new regional conferences, knowing 
that they would have an impact 
<http://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/discuss/2012-January/010015.html> on 
attendance at Beijing.

As explain by in a post 
by the Chair of the OSGeo Board:

     From all that I can tell, now FOSS4G Beijing will become a local
    conference with support from "OSGeo international". This and no
    more. It will not be the Global or World conference that FOSS4G was
    before because we will have a FOSS4G CEE and FOSS4G North America
    event (plus the regular local ones) in the same year. There is no
    chance at all that Beijing can attract the same vibrant global
    participation that we had at the last global FOSS4G conferences. 
    The question is not whether we will have a FOSS4G in Beijing or CEE
    or North America. From all that I can tell we will have them all.
    There is no reason (and probably no way) to stop the North American
    or CEE initiative or both. Instead it is great to see so much
    interest and momentum - and we would be stupid to stifle it. 

Competing regional conferences included:

  * October 2012, INTERGEO 2012
  * October 2012, Smart Korea 2012 in conjunction with OGC TC/PC Meeting
  * October 12, 2012, FOSS4G Korea 2012
  * October 2012, GISSA conference
  * September 2012, Asia GeoSpatial Forum
  * 5 September 2012 Open Source GIS Conference (OSGIS)
  * August 2012, 34th International Geological Conference
  * 18-19 July 2012, FOSS4G Southeast Asia
  * July 2012, Third Open Source GIS Summer School
  * July 2012, International Environmental Modeling and Software Society
    Conference (IEMSS)
  * July 2012, AGIT
  * June 30 - July 1, 2012, FOSS4G Hokkaido 2012
  * June 2012, useR! The International R User Conference
  * June 28, 2012, OSGeo.nl Day (FOSS4G Regional) within MapWindow
    Conference - The Netherlands
  * May 2012, FOSS4G-CEE & Geoinformatics 2012
  * May 2012, FOSSCOMM 2012
  * May 2012, HellasGI 2012
  * April 2012, COMEM OGO course :: Webmapping with OGC standards
  * April 2012, Geospatial World Forum 2012
  * 23 April 2012, FOSS4G North America 2012

Source: http://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/Live_GIS_History

    Local Organising Committee experience

      Lack of Professional Conference Organisor

The Local Organising Committee (LOC) had teamed with a Professional 
Conference Organisor (PCO), starting from the bidding for the FOSS4G 
2011 conference. However, the PCO stepped back from engaging for the 
FOSS4G conference. The LOC were then unsuccessful in trying to sign up a 
new PCO 

      Loosing key LOC members

One of the key FOSS4G LOC members, Professor Yu, passed away shortly 
after Beijing was awarded the conference. This was very unfortunate, 
both on a personal level, and organisation level.

Loss of key committee members is reasonably common (although usually 
people step down for various reasons, rather than pass away). For 
instance, a key FOSS4G-Sydney evangelist, who promoted the Sydney event 
at prior FOSS4G conferences, stepped back and didn't attend Sydney's 
FOSS4G 2009. The original FOSS4G-Devar 2011 chair had to stand down 
<http://geothought.blogspot.com/2010_10_01_archive.html> for personal 
reasons shortly after the bid was accepted. These examples highlight the 
need for organizing committees to have strength in depth, and in 
particular to have a backup plan if the conference chair has to step 
down. This was a question that was asked of the Nottingham FOSS4G 2013 
contenders, who have two backups to the conference chair, as well as a 
committee with strength in depth overall.

      Decision Making

A conference chair is asked to make many decisions related to the 
conference, and the majority of the time, there is no clear 
understanding about the benefits or downsides of each option. Usually 
the only sure thing is that not making a decision will be detrimental to 
the conference. Consequently, it is important for LOCs to become quick 
and efficient at analyzing possibilities and then making decisions.

 From what I can gather, the Beijing LOC would have benefited from being 
more efficient in making decisions. For instance, in mid-November 2012 
the OSGeo-Live <http://live.osgeo.org> community asked the LOC to commit 
to distributing OSGeo-Live DVDs at the Beijing conference. The LOC took 
almost 3 months to confirm they would support this 
Other conferences usually provide such confirmation within a week, often 
within a day or two.

I suspect delays related to decisions would have contributed to schedule 
slipages. The lesson here is that LOC's should be structured and 
resourced such that they can make decisions efficiently. A prior 
conference chair extended this observation to note the importance of the 
conference chair:

    [A key lesson is the] importance of an active LOC and even more
    importantly an active CHAIR. Committees don't move, they can't
    communicate, they can't move. People can, so an active CHAIR is the
    single critical ingredient. And the more that person in invested in
    both organizing and communicating the event, the better it will be. 

      Schedule slip

As the deadline for the FOSS4G conference approached, there was 
significant schedule slip 
on key milestones, such as the ability to accept conference papers. This 
was providing a visible indication of some of the other issues listed on 
this analysis.

I think the lesson here is quite simple. Make sure there is an 
appropriately resourced project manager responsible for managing the 
conference schedule. (This task is usually provided by a PCO).

A second issue is that although OSGeo had identified concerns with 
FOSS4G Beijing's progress reasonably early, intervention from OSGeo was 
late in coming. A prior FOSS4G chair noted:

    We need to put harder stops in place to short circuit failure. If
    you don't have a call for workshops out by February, [serious
    questions are asked, such as should the conference be cancelled?].
    If you don't have $30K in sponsorship in place by April, [serious
    questions]. If you don't have a call for papers out by May, [serious
    questions]. This [FOSS4G 2012 conference] dragged out longer than it
    should of because there were no hard stop points. 

During the build up to FOSS4G Beijing, one of the key volunteers on 
OSGeo conference committee, who had previously been very active, was 
showing signs of burnout and was not contributing to his prior levels. 
This left a noticeable hole in the OSGeo conference committee which was 
not filled by another volunteer. The OSGeo Conference committee had 
previously provided checks on conferences, such as reviewing and 
approving the conference's budget and submitting to the OSGeo board for 
approval, however this didn't happen for the FOSS4G Beijing conference.

What are the lesson's here? It may be that the critical role of 
approving finances should be covered by a paid position, funded by 
profits of FOSS4G conferences. Something like this was considered as 
described by the following section ...

      No mentor

A proposal 
<http://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/board/2011-November/009180.html> was 
put to the OSGeo board, which was eventually approved, to have an 
experienced FOSS4G mentor support the Beijing Local Organising 
Committee. (A funded mentor was not provided to previous conferences). 
This proposal fell through 
<http://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/board/2012-January/009364.html>, and 
although a some prior FOSS4G chairs were approached (and others?), a 
replacement mentor was not found.

This left the Beijing FOSS4G LOC committee without some key expertise 
which could have been very valuable.

What is the lesson here? I think this was a good idea which fell 
through, and is worth pursuing again in future.


      Language barrier

 From what I understand, Beijing LOC were most comfortable speaking in 
Chinese, and had varying levels of experience with English. I observed 
that finding the right English words to support a conversation and 
convey important messages was a time consuming task, often involving 
decisions being made in Chinese, then translated to English. This 
communication overhead would have produced a significant workload on the 
LOC, who were already working on the difficult and time consuming task 
of running a FOSS4G conference.

I believe this communication gap also contributed to many of the other 
symptoms discussed here. Slow communication between the LOC and 
community would have:

  * Contributed toward slow responses to community queries, hindering
    the international community contributing prior experience toward the
  * Slowed decisions from the LOC resulting in schedule slip,
  * Caused difficulties getting the quality control of the website correct,
  * and reduced marketing and communication to potential international

      Cultural Differences

I question whether cultural differences contributed to communication 
shortfalls. From my observations, it seems Chinese are more circumspect 
about sending public communication, often waiting for review from a 
superior before making a statement. This contracts with open source 
communities I've observed, where many opinions are discussed publicly, 
both amongst senior and junior developers, until a rough consensus is 

      Collective Knowledge

I believe our experience with this conference highlights how much of our 
collective FOSS4G knowledge is stored in volunteers' heads, and is 
passed between different events through our various communication 
channels. When we constrict information flow by introducing a language 
barrier, we have also constricted access to our knowledge on how to run 
a conference.

A few suggestions on ways to address this include:

 1. Collect our conference running knowledge in a central source, that
    can be handed on without the high level of communication currently
    being used. In particular, I'm suggesting starting to collect our
    processes in a FOSS4G Cookbook
    <http://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/FOSS4G_Cookbook> or similar.
 2. Set up a permanent FOSS4G coordinator role (one person, or an
    international PCO, or similar) who are responsible for coordinating
    conferences and personally remembering lessons learned between
    conferences. (Note the risk of this person resigning and loosing all
    collected knowledge)
 3. Alternatively, ensure key members in the LOC can communicate
    fluently with the rest of the OSGeo community. In most cases at the
    moment, this would mean speaking fluently in English.

      Response to emails

There were a number of comments that I was privately CCed on which 
indicated that the international community were not receiving responses 
after emailing the LOC. Here are some examples:

    As I've told you before it has been frustrating to me to not receive
    any feedback from the LOC on my offer to sponsor the event. I
    basically had the plan to come with my whole team (5 people now),
    but can't afford such investment considering the state the
    conference and participation levels are at now. In fact we have
    moved focus to the Nottingham event just after Beijing because it
    appears to be (1) better organized (but that may just appear like it
    due to the lack of communication from Beijing, (2) an audience that
    is of interest to [company name] and (3) cheaper / closer to home. 

Another from the academic lead 
who later stepped down:

    ... [regarding email responses] from two "important players" I have
    had no feedback, namely from the local organizers and from OSGEO. 

I think the lesson here is that the LOC and PCO should be suitably 
motivated and resourced, and be provided with enough delegation to 
respond to all community queries promptly. Every query should be 
responded to within one working day, even if the response is "we will 
have an answer to you after the LOC meets next week".

      Website out of date

A conference's website is the primary form of communication with 
potential delegates. For FOSS4G 2012, the website took an excessively 
long time to be developed and brought online, and then when it was 
brought online, it contained incorrect information and broken links 
(mainly cut and paste from the prior FOSS4G website 
People were having significant issues with submitting papers and 
registering to attend 

The FOSS4G LOC had hired an external web developer to create the 
website, who had done a poor job of development. It seemed that there 
was a lack of quality control from both the web developer, and LOC. In 
the past, development of the website has either been managed by 
technically experienced developers (as was the case in 2009), or by the 

The lesson here is that the website needs to be made a priority and 
suitably resourced. There is the potential for website management 
software to be passed on from one conference to the next. (We considered 
this option in 2009 but found the Open Source conference management 
software used by FOSS4G 2008 was not going to integrate easily with the 
software our PCO was using). It would be worth future FOSS4G conferences 
revisiting this question.

      Minimal "buzz"

To a certain extent, a conference is successful because the LOC says it 
is going to be successful (and potential attendees and sponsors believe 
the statement). Presenters and sponsors attend the conference because 
they believe there will be lots of delegates, and delegates attend 
because they believe there will be lots of quality presenters and 
sponsors. And one of the most effective ways for everyone to be 
convinced of the conference's success is to create lots of "buzz". Ie, 
lots of press releases, articles, blogs, twitter discussion and more 
talking about how good the conference is going to be.

FOSS4G 2009 possibly went a little too far by putting out 41 press 
releases <http://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/FOSS4G_2009_Press_Releases>. 
However, FOSS4G Beijing could certainly have benefited from more "Buzz", 
as the OSGeo Board Chair noted 

    on the website at http://2012.foss4g.org/ there is still no option
    for submitting abstracts although the submission has been opened -
    apparently without notice to any of the regular OSGeo channels.
    Workshops submission ends in two weeks. 
    No international speakers have been announced and there are only
    Chinese sponsors listed (although interest by regulars was
    documented as early as December 2012). 

      Engaging international organisors

Compared to prior international FOSS4G events, there was minimal 
international involvement in organising the FOSS4G event. Of particular 
concern was that the international academic track lead announced 

    ... that I regret [the LOC] did not fully support the setup I
    proposed. Specifically, the LOC insists on using their own deadlines
    and reviewing and publication plan. Of course they have every right
    to do so, because it is in fact their conference... 

There is a significant amount of work involved in organising a 
conference, and it is very valuable to share tasks with the 
international community. This has two key benefits:

  * It allows the LOC to focus on the local issues (like sorting out the
  * It facilitates knowledge transfer between years, as roles like the
    Academic track lead are often coordinated by the same core people
    over a number of years.

So lesson here is look for opportunities to make use of the 
international community to coordinate specific areas of the conference.

      Weekly meetings

Less than 3 months before FOSS4G 2012 was due, weekly meetings 
<http://lists.osgeo.org/pipermail/foss4g2012/2012-June/000077.html> were 
started between volunteers from the international community and the LOC. 
I understand that the LOC were having meetings internally, but there was 
little visibility of them from the international community. The extra 
meetings facilitated transparency from the international community into 
the progress of the LOC, which in turn provided opportunities for the 
international community to volunteer to help. Eventually, with the help 
of these weekly meetings it was assessed that the level of effort 
required to bring the conference back on track, along with the likely 
outcome, resulted in a decision to cancel the conference.

In retrospect, these meetings should have started much earlier, ideally 
from the start of the conference planning a year or so earlier such that 
support from the international community could have made a better impact 
in the earlier stages. So lesson hear is start having periodic meetings 
from early in the planning cycle, and invite the international community 
to participate if you can.

Cameron Shorter
Geospatial Solutions Manager
Tel: +61 (0)2 8570 5050
Mob: +61 (0)419 142 254

Think Globally, Fix Locally
Geospatial Solutions enhanced with Open Standards and Open Source

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