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What is BarCamp Philly?

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BarCamp logoBarCamp Philly is not a summer sleep away destination for your local bartender. Nor is it an opportunity to pitch a tent at your favorite tavern. BarCamp Philly is, however, one of the hottest events happening in town this weekend. 

In short: About 350 creative, motivated professionals will spend the day at the University of the Arts talking about whatever they want. Then, they’ll hang out at National Mechanics in Old City, play Rock Band, and dance the night away to 90s alterna-rock. Oh, and it’s free. 

Unfortunately, you probably can’t go. Because BarCamp Philly, a grassroots approach to professional development, has been sold out for weeks. In its second year, this “unconference” has drawn more than 350 registrants – almost double last year’s attendance. And with just a few days left, and no waiting list, the organizers are still getting requests every day from people who really want to attend. 

But what are they coming for? I still don’t get it:  What exactly is BarCamp?

A BarCamp is an “unconference” – an open, participatory event where the attendees are the presenters. Looking for a pricey convention with a big name keynote speaker who just might sign your napkin if you wait in line long enough? Sorry, not here. Looking to connect with creative people, be energized, and maybe even share a bit of your own experience. This is your space. 

The first BarCamp was held in Palo Alto, Ca., in 2005. Since then more than 350 cities on six continents have hosted BarCamps (we’re still waiting for BarCamp Antarctica). The first BarCamps focused on early-stage web applications, open-source technologies, and open data formats; but the format has been adapted to serve a variety of other industries and issues, including public transit, health care, and political organizing. 

BarCamp came to Philly last year, after co-organizer J.P. Toto attended his first unconference in Orlando. Toto, an application developer and technology consultant from Collegeville, went to Orlando on his own with no idea what to expect. “I left Orlando truly inspired,” Toto explains. “I wanted to find a way to bring BarCamp to Philadelphia.”

Toto connected with Roz Duffy, an enthusiastic Philly-based web producer and manager, and together they organized the first BarCamp Philly in November 2008 at the University of the Arts. “The result was beyond what we’d hoped,” Toto says. “We had nearly 200 attendees, and the day was an unqualified success!” 

Considering the positive response to the first event, Toto says he and Duffy felt compelled to do it again. The deal was sealed when U Arts reached out earlier this year to ask when they could host another BarCamp. “They actually contacted us. It really illustrates the difference in this year,” Toto told Technically Philly in September. “Last year we had to beg, borrow and steal.” 

Chris Myers, Chairman of the Department of Graphic Design at U Arts, believes that BarCamp is uniquely valuable to the city and sees it has part of the University’s responsibility to help make it happen. “BarCamp represents an educational forum that is not replicable within a traditional college education,” Myers says. “It is ‘open source’ learning – the professional equivalent of the ambient conversations and peer learning that students participate in outside of the scheduled class hours. It is the equivalent of a philosophical and technical ‘help desk.’ And it cannot be estimated how valuable this event is as a free exchange that is free of charge.” 

In addition to U Arts, which is providing space, security, and technical support for the event, BarCamp’s supporters range from dedicated individuals donating cash and time, local bars, law firms, small tech consulting firms, and Philly-area blogs. Even the big boys at Microsoft have thrown their support behind the event. This range of sponsors seems pretty representative of the way that BarCamp Philly cuts across industries and interests. 

So, it’s not a tech event?

J.P. Toto, co-organizer of BarCamp Philly.  Photo courtesy of J.P. Toto.“The original BarCamp [in California in 2005] had origins in tech, but I don’t consider Barcamp Philly a tech event,” Toto says. 

“BarCamp is a chance for people from many different industries to cross-pollinate and help each other,” Duffy adds. “This is one of those events where everybody comes out.”  

Indeed. The registration for BarCamp Philly 2 filled quickly; and at the beginning of November, with almost two full weeks left before the event, the organizers admitted everyone on their waiting list and officially closed registration. The final count: 360 registrants. That’s nearly twice the number of attendees at last year’s event. 

“It’s been a very hot ticket!” Toto says. 

Why so hot? With free admission, the organizers are quick to acknowledge that the price is right. But Toto suggests that BarCamp taps into something that many other events don’t. “I think the key word is empowerment,” he explains. “It’s an event that is open to anyone and only specializes in ideas. One of the big differences between other events in the city and Barcamp Philly is the open format. Ultimately the event becomes whatever the attendees make it.” 

This attention to attendees is not just lip service. Peruse the BarCamp Philly blog and you’ll find that most of the real estate is dedicated to profiling registrants. At least one new profile is posted every day, with info provided by attendees about their expertise and interests, their experience with BarCamp, and the type of session they might lead. For those who don’t know what to expect, these profiles prove that you can expect anything. 

There are, for instance, quite a few folks coming from outside the Philly area, like Robert Dempsey, an entrepreneur from Winter Park, Fla., and a seasoned BarCamper. Dempsey is the CEO of a Florida-based technology firm, who has been to two unconferences. If he leads a session, you can expect him to talk about how business is broken and how to fix it. “The session would focus around seeing people as people, whether they are employees or customers. Business really needs to get back on track.” Dempsey explains in his profile. 

The Schedule Board from BarCamp 2008. Photo courtesy of Roz Duffy. There are also many registrants who don’t describe themselves as technology professionals. Ellie Brown, for instance, is an artist and photographer who you might find leading a session on artist marketing at BarCamp. Sarah Feidt, a full-time creative lead and part-time adventure guide, is considering leading a session on interdisciplinary living. “Dancers study pilates, linear algebra students play Freecell, martial artists play paintball, all to improve their main discipline with what they train in the secondary one,” Feidt writes in her profile. “I’d love to hear what BarCampers do that sharpens their abilities in their areas of greatest passion!” 

“The common threads BarCamp attendees share aren’t career choice or domain expertise,” Toto explains. “What they share is a desire to learn, to be inspired, to meet people doing interesting things, and to share ideas. It’s an open mindedness that draws them together.” 

The open, participatory format has attracted several first-time BarCampers to this year’s event. Kevin Jarrett is a first-timer who works as a technology facilitator in a New Jersey elementary school. Jarrett, who says that he “willingly (and enthusiastically) took a $62,000 pay cut to become an elementary schoolteacher” may be found leading a session at this weekend’s BarCamp on teaching as a second career. Jonny Goldstein is another a first-timer, though he’s no stranger to public speaking. Goldstein is a “visual explainer” who makes cartoons that explain stuff, creates visual notes for conferences and events, and leads workshops on visual thinking, communication, and creativity. BarCamp Philly 2 will be his first unconference. “I kind of feel like my life is one long extended BarCamp,” he writes in his profile. “Guess I’ll find out if this is true once I actually attend an official one.” 

Okay, so what happens when I get there?

“Finding out” is part of the BarCamp mystique. The very nature of these events makes them somewhat unpredictable, but that is not to say chaotic. There is definitely an order to the openness. 

Roz Duffy, co-organizer of BarCamp Philly, playing guitar at the Rock Band after party for BarCamp Philly 2008.  Photo courtesy of Roz Duffy. Here’s a brief overview of what the day will look like:  From 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., attendees arrive, chat, enjoy complimentary coffee and breakfast treats, and most importantly build the schedule for the day. There’s a large open schedule grid and next to it a pile of blank index cards. Anyone interested in leading a session writes her idea on a card and pins it to the board in the time slot and room of her choosing. A few minutes before 10 a.m., BarCamp kicks off with a brief welcome message from the organizers. Sessions, which are usually about an hour, go from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m., with a break for lunch. Some attendees will have planned their sessions in advance and will come with multi-media presentations, handouts, etc. Others will be inspired that morning, throw their ideas up on the board, and see what sticks. Sessions can take the form of a lecture/presentation, discussion group, round table, Q&A, group brainstorm, or whatever the participants make happen. Likewise, there’s no limit on session topics. Last year’s schedule included technical sessions on specific software development tools as well as “layperson” sessions on un-friending people, quitting your job, and making your own business cards. 

That’s the main event. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the great networking, community-building, friend-making and just plain fun activities scheduled around BarCamp Philly 2. 

It all starts Friday night with BeerCamp, a sold-out event featuring Philly area homebrewers, sandwiches from Unbreaded, and Philly’s own Two Guys on Beer Johnny Bilotta and Dave Martorana.

On Saturday, following the unconference at UArts, the festivities move to National Mechanics in Old City where Geekadelphia will be hosting the after party. Billed as an “EPIC Rock Band Extravaganza” the after party doubles as a fundraiser for Child’s Play, a game industry charity that will help kids right Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

And if that’s enough, there’s an after after party, also at National Mechanics, where Philly’s snarky dating blog, Shmitten Kitten will curate a 90s alternative dance party. 

“It’s not only an excellent educational event, it’s also completely social,” says Duffy. “We want people get a lot out of BarCamp Philly: networking, job opportunities, collaboration, information, fun, new friends, ideas, inspiration, etc.” 

Sounds like fun, but what comes out of it?

BarCamp weekend is sure to be invigorating for the 300-400 people who will the unconference and its auxiliary events. But the real impact will probably be felt throughout Philadelphia for months to come. 

“The importance of BarCamp didn’t really make itself known until after we organized it the first time,” explains J.P. Toto. “People left Barcamp Philly 2008 feeling empowered to bootstrap their own efforts in their respective areas of work.” 

Since last November, three additional unconferences took place in fairly disparate industries, all organized by attendees of last year’s BarCamp Philly. In March, HealthCamp Philadelphia took place at Jefferson University; BarCamp NewsInnovation was held at Temple in April; and in June, HigherEdCamp Philly was hosted at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, to these one-day events, several BarCampers coalesced to organize Refresh Philly, a monthly meet-up of designers and developers working to refresh the creative, technical, and professional culture of new media endeavors in their areas. 

With at least 100 more attendees expected this year, it seems logical that the city will continue to feel the ripples of BarCamp Philly long after this weekend. 

“I really want BarCamp to be a part of creating more business here in Philadelphia and creating more jobs for all of the awesomely creative people that are graduating here every year,” Duffy says. “I hope that participants feel inspired and ready to take action on new projects and old. I hope they make new friends and connections and head towards new challenges. That’s how I felt after last year’s BarCamp!”

If you’re one of those lucky enough to be at this weekend’s BarCamp, this is what you can look forward to: being energized and motivated, opening new doors, and embarking on new personal and professional endeavors. If you’re one of the many who will miss it, fear not. It’s a safe bet this won’t be the last one. The organizers Duffy and Toto agree that this event is good for Philadelphia and needs to happen annually. 

“As long as people want to keep coming, I think we’ll keep having it!” Toto says.