Dimension 1: Creating a great one-time experience for everyone
Ever since its first edition, the participants of the Wikimedia Conference have been a wonderfully diverse crowd. The target group of the conference are the the Wikimedia Movement affiliates and their representatives as well as the Wikimedia Foundation. Across this group, roles, responsibilities, and experiences within and beyond the Wikimedia movement vary a lot, and it is therefore hard to make generalized statements about the Wikimedia Conference participants. All participants bring their own hopes, wishes and ideas to the conference and our main job, be it program or logistics, is to create a great experience for every single participant.
Still, after three years of organizing the conference, we have learned that it does make sense to differ between two groups of participants: One-time participants and returning participants. These two groups tend to engage differently with the conference program, which in turn created a need to design a program that embraces different levels of participant engagement.
On the one hand, we have a growing number of participants who attend only once. Most of these one-time participants are power contributors to the Wikimedia movement; volunteers who come to the conference on an affiliate ticket. For this growing group of one-time participants (but not limited to them), we have learned (and are still learning) how to best design the conference space and activities to fulfill their needs.
Over the last three years we have found that one-time participants mainly want to get inspired, share their experiences, and meet old and new Wikimedia friends (again, this is especially valid for one-time participants, but not limited to them). For quite a few (app. one third of the participants), this leads to starting up new projects on a small scale, mostly focused on their communities. For most one-time participants, however, it is not a priority to discuss organizational structures, endowment strategies or the future of the Wikimedia Movement; they do not participate in sessions on these topics or the related discussions. Based on this (and the fact that many attend only once), we assume they have less motivation for following the connections between previous or future editions of the Wikimedia Conference. One-time participants have therefore mainly profited from our continuous work over the three years to create an inclusive conference with smooth logistics.
The Wikimedia Conference has always been a place for all participants to learn from each other. The many new small scale projects that people get inspired to do prove the value of this exchange. At the same time, it has been an opportunity for us to think about more inclusive formats (as is described in Dimension 2). However, and partly due to our work with creating more inclusive formats, we increasingly experience that affiliates may more effectively share experiences and participate in capacity building at regional conferences. Here, participants to a greater extend can apply similar solutions to similar concrete challenges. We think that in-person, regional learning events in the local languages and contexts will lead to greater impact, and in this sense our capacity-building track at the Wikimedia Conference has its limits.
On the other hand, we a have a group of around 60–80 participants who attend the conference regularly to have conversations about strategy and governance, to have peer to peer exchange, and to discuss the future of the movement. We have learned that the core of our “Program and Engagement Coordination” concept (i.e. making the conference more sustainable, more productive and more outcome-oriented) is especially applicable and valuable for these participants. Over the years, it became clear that they have become the main target group of our follow-up work and the continuing conversations around the focus topics (see “Dimension 2”, which deals with this in more detail).
Getting to know each other across affiliates to strengthen connections as well as learning about each other’s work is a core element of most international Wikimedia events. And although the follow-up work of the Program and Engagement Coordinator mainly targets the returning participants, there are several benefits for all participants in our reflections and learnings from the past three years.
We have implemented a number of practical measures to enhance social networking and communication, and continuously developed these based on previous years’ learnings:
Creating a socially supportive environment for participants, e.g. by providing semi-structured opportunities to socialize in the evening and off-conference, offer conversation starter lines during breaks, and initiating a “buddy system” for newbies.
Facilitating introduction and presentation of participants: Creating a Wikimedia Conference Telegram group; a “Letter Box Wall”; Wikimedia Conference business cards for all participants; and organizational profiles, i.e. simple templates that affiliates filled in before the conference to give an overview of the organizations present at the conference.
We have previously shared many of these learnings in a Learning Pattern, “Facilitating social interaction at conferences”, written by the 2016 Visiting Wikimedian, Teele Vaalma, and Program and Engagement Coordinator, Cornelius Kibelka.
Professional logistics and smooth processes for everyone in place
In terms of logistics, we have learned to develop effective and efficient processes to create a stimulating and productive experience for everyone. We have learned how a conference space needs to be designed to accommodate a huge group of Wikimedians, while providing everyone with what they need. Over three years, our “participant management” processes are close to perfection, proven by the feedback in our surveys. “Participant management” already starts with designing the registration form that has to comply with various requirements by different stakeholders (WMF, WMDE, participants, travel agency, hotel). Moreover, one needs to make sure that all important details are retrieved through the registration form to avoid unnecessary follow-up questions and to make the participant management as efficient as possible. By organizing the conference several years in a row, we were consequently able to increasingly improve the registration form and processes.
One of our biggest learnings and improvements over the years is our visa support and application process. Because of a more global representation at the Wikimedia Conference, the number of attendees in need of a Schengen visa increased. Thanks to our experience and a close collaboration with the German authorities, we could increasingly offer our advice and support to participants within the application process and limit the denials of visa for attendees to a minimum. Unfortunately, a certain amount of denials cannot be avoided, as visa policies have gotten stricter over the years due to the general political climate in Europe. Professional logistics and smooth processes for everyone in place.
In short: Without good logistics you will not be able to host a conference. Only thanks to our event management team at WMDE, were we able to bring this event to a new level of professionalism and efficiency. And only this gave us the space to focus on the program and the follow-up around the conference, as described in this report.