Unconference basics

How unconferences differ from traditional conferences

  • There is no predefined agenda. The attendees — that’s you! — decide at the beginning of the day which topics they’d like to discuss and engage in.
  • Everyone participates. If you attend a session, it is because you want to learn, share, and contribute to the discussion.
  • No one person dominates a session. Sessions are not presentations, but gatherings to spark discussion, brainstorming, and engagement.

This video does a great job of summarizing the unconference format »

What will happen?

The day usually starts of with coffee and time to chat. Then each participant introduces themselves and names one or two topics that they’re interested.

After the introductions, there’s time to start creating sessions. There will be a large grid with times and spaces. Participants who would like to facilitate a session (either because they want to share, or simply want to learn more) can post their topic on the grid. When it’s complete the grid will look something like these:


Photo: Sunlight Foundation, Transparency Camp 2011, Washington DC


Photo: Burt Lum, Transparency Camp 2012, Washington DC


Photo: Igal Koshevoy, Open Source Bridge 2012, Portland, Oregon

Feel free to team up with other people if your ideas align. This is an opportunity to speak with representatives of NGOs, the media, and donor organizations in a fruitful, engaging, and participatory setting.

What will not happen?

  • No presentations or powerpoints — The best knowledge comes from the participants, so eyes should be on each other rather than one person or a screen. This gives everyone the opportunity to contribute.
  • No badges with organizational titles — Introduce yourself and start talking. The idea is to avoid assessing the organization or title to decide if someone is “worth” talking to. We will provide badges with space for your twitter handle, if you have one :)
  • No pitching or exhibitions — Sales pitches, giveaways, and exhibition stands are not allowed.

This is my first unconference. Any tips?

  • Go with the flow — The event is intended to provide you with the time and the space to talk with and learn from each other
  • Follow your passion — Go to the sessions that interest you, and leave if it turns out they don’t
  • Take responsibility for your own learning — The more you participate the better your experience

Anything else?

Unfconferences are based on an Open Space Technology approach, developed by Harrison Owen. The process can be described by four principles and a one law.


Photo: Christine Prefontaine, International Open Government Data Conference, 2012, World Bank

Principle 1. Whoever shows up are the right people — Even if you’re a small a group you can achieve a lot. The fundamental requirement is that people who care to do something. By showing up, that essential care is demonstrated.

Principle 2. Whenever it starts is the right time — Spirit and creativity do not run on the clock. They happen (or not) when they happen.

Principle 3. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have — Once something has happened, it’s done. No amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change it. Move on.

Principle 4. When it’s over, it’s over — Do the work, not the time. When your session feels “done” move on to something more useful. Don’t stay just because there’s 30 minutes left.

“The Law of Two Feet” — If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and go someplace else. Such a place might be another group, or even outside into the sunshine. No matter what, don’t sit there feeling miserable.

In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on — the “polite” thing to do is to do something else.