A conference Jim, but not as you know it: my first communications conference – SpotOn London (#Solo13)

During a scientific career it is normal to attend conferences. The point of a conference is to share ideas and information with other like-minded individuals. It also gives a change for geographically distant groups of people to come together and meet face-to-face and perhaps spark new ideas or debate over old ones. As a fourth year PhD student I have attended a couple of scientific conferences and was starting to get the hang of them. However, in November 2013 I was alerted to SpotOn London by a colleague, and as I have an interest in science communication, I thought I would attend.

SpotOn stands for Science Policy, Outreach and Tools ONline. The conference was held in the British Library in London, UK, and hosted by the Nature publishing group. SpotOn has been held annually for the last 6 years and, as suggested in the name, discussion revolves around science communication and outreach, science policy, online tools and digital publishing. Every attendee could give their twitter handle when they registered and a list was made available on twitter. In addition to this every session over the two days had their own individual hashtag i.e. #solo13blogs, as well as the overarching hashtag #solo13 for the whole conference. The first thing that struck me about this conference was that the hashtags enabled discussions to begin before the conference even started. I have tried before, at other conferences, to get a bit of dialog on twitter to break the ice in the days running up to the conference, just to be greeted with silence.

Twitter featured heavily during SpotOn13 too. The hashtags were used during each session for a semi-silent background conversation (tapping of keys, the buzzing vibrations of mobile devices and the odd giggle stopped it from being completely silent), whilst also opening up the session to questions from those unable to attend in person. A live stream of each session also enabled a virtual presence for many who were unable to be in London. There was also a twitter summary given at the end of every session.

The sessions were different to any other conference I had been to. There were a panel of experts who each said their piece before the discussion was opened up “to the floor”. It was less of a lecture format and more like a less formal Question Time. For me, this was great. I sometimes find that long talks lose my attention and I end up missing the point altogether (a habit I haven’t shaken since university). The buzz of activity in the room and the multiple speakers kept my mind active.

The other thing I quite liked, though perhaps have a greater potential than how they were used in solo13, were the name badges. The name badges were not your ordinary pin on paper and plastic badges, but were a piece of technology in themselves. The badges contained contact information for the wearer such as name, twitter handle and email address – like an electronic business card. To share your information with another attendee all you had to do was “bump” badges and log into a website after the conference.

I got to meet a lot of cool people who previously I had only really ‘known’ on twitter including the very lovely Malcolm Campbell (@m_m_campbell) of “Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast” fame (check it out here). I got a few tips for my outreach and blogging and learned that the old “it’s who you know” saying is actually very true when it comes to getting your ideas out there. It also reinforced my belief that scientists are easily swayed with cake and that open access publishing would make life a hell of a lot easier for everyone. If you want to know more about the individual sessions, see the links below. All in all I had a very enjoyable couple of days, and would definitely like to thank everyone who made it possible.

Useful links:

Pictures from SpotOn13

A round up of blogs and storifys from Solo13

by Kirsty Jackson- a fourth year PhD student in the lab of Dr Jeremy Murray

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