Editor's Note: This story has been corrected since it was first published.
Open Source Bridge, a conference held in Portland, OR last week, answered the question, "can the attendees drive the direction of a conference in the same manner open source software is developed, and achieve better results?" By all accounts, the answer is a resounding, 'yes.'
Here is what it was all about.
Why a New Open Source Conference?
While this is not the first or the only open source volunteer-run conference, it drew large amounts of attention due to how it came to be. O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, OSCON, was moved to San Jose, CA, leaving the huge Portland, OR open source community exasperated. Portland has proudly made great strides toward becoming the open source hub recently, and losing the biggest open source conference was quite a blow.
With adversity comes innovation, especially with the type of people who attend open source conferences. Surely a conference put on by the community could be just as good, if not better. Organizers Audrey Eschright, Selena Deckelmann, and Jake Kuramoto set out to create a different, more useful open source conference.
By focusing on making the conference more interactive than the standard one-way communication, and encouraging people to talk about experiences rather than dry technical how-to presentations, they hoped to create a much better conference and environment. If participation level is any indicator, they certainly succeeded; nearly one-fourth of the 500+ participants presented during the conference. It is also worth noting that Open Source Bridge was not limited to local Portlander participants; many traveled to attend and present, including--but certainly not limited to--Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the Wiki, and Rasmus Lerdorf, PHP's original creator.
How Open Source Bridge Worked
Like most conferences, Open Source Bridge offered a wide array of talks to attend, and each is categorized into a track. This is just a way of classifying the sessions, so attendees can easily identify similar sessions.
Business focused heavily on building open source businesses. Sessions focused on how to start businesses, how to get funding, and related topics, as well as the obligatory session about using open source software to run a business (CRM, etc).
Chemistry focused on 'how stuff works.' Sessions explaining how some technology works would be found here, including a talk about the Linux kernel development model.
The Cooking track focused on unusual and innovative 'recipes' for software development, systems administration, and working with open source in general. The bulk of the conference was classified in the Cooking track, where you could find everything from organized squabbles about version control systems, to tuning databases, and just about anything else.
Culture, the fourth track label, held sessions that dealt with cultural implications of open source software. Sessions about how a specific technology saved the world, teaching children to program, and extending the reach of open source software were among the topics in this second largest track.
The choices were plenty, and the conference ran later than most. Some sessions extended well past 7pm, and then there was the hacker lounge. High atop the Hilton hotel, the floor was rented out and dedicated to Open Source Bridge attendees. A place people could hang out 24x7 to work on code, meet people, hear about new projects, and even start new projects--which is bound to happen when these people get together.
This is how the conference worked the first two days. Then, Friday was the official Unconference day. There were no schedule sessions, instead anyone was welcome to propose a topic, select a room, and go give a presentation. Many people, myself included, though about skipping the last day. Without a clear picture of what was in store, was it even worth driving to the convention center and paying $8 for parking? As it turns out, yes. There was plenty to choose from, as numerous people proposed interesting topics and gave more interactive presentations.
You could easily get your fill of standard (and useful) topics such as Coding PHP Better, Starting an Open Source Business, Configuration Management for Servers, and Using the Latest and Greatest New Development Tool, but this conference offered a bit more than the standard fare. For example, one excellent talk was about how one bad apple can quickly drag down the spirit of an open source project, titled, 'Assholes are Killing Your Project.' You wouldn't see that at an O'Reilly conference, and the presenter provided valuable and entertaining advice about how to deal with this common issue.
Surprisingly, there seemed to be much more variety compared to most larger conferences. Not once did I find myself looking at all the sessions in a time block, uninterested in any, left to roam the halls listening for the room with the most laughs. The variety and large selection were great, and the presentations were generally of very high quality.
Surveying people I know, most quickly compared Open Source Bridge to OSCON, citing it was either 'better' or 'as good as' OSCON. Major complaints were the lack of power strips, of course, and a general annoyance at the second day's keynote speech. Portland Mayor Sam Adams gave a boring keynote that ended with the expected, 'please help me convince city hall to use more open source software.' Many people felt that a keynote from an open source luminary would have been much more valuable. This, however, was the only negative report, which accounted for 45 minutes of the entire conference.
Leveraging the power of community, Open Source Bridge proven that conferences can be better, cheaper, and more useful. These were the results with only 500 attendees, so next year is sure to be even more exciting.
Correction: This article incorrectly identified the conference organizers. Audrey Eschright, Selena Deckelmann, and Jake Kuramoto were the conference organizers. We regret the error.