Behind the Scenes at the Crisis Mapping Conference

We are just five days away from launching the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) but the seeds for this unique event were planted 15 months ago, on Facebook of all places.

My colleague Jen Ziemke and I had reconnected via Facebook where I had linked my status updates to my Twitter feed. I tweeted about my blog posts and this led Jen to this blog, iRevolution, where I published posts of crisis mapping. A few weeks later, I get a message from Jen in my Facebook inbox. She liked what I was writing on crisis mapping and asked if I’d be interested in co-organizing a small workshop on crisis mapping. The rest is history.

The idea to organize a workshop on crisis mapping was brilliant.

I had just completed two years of applied research on crisis mapping at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). The next logical step was indeed to hold a workshop to formalize the field of crisis mapping. We therefore drew on the taxonomy of crisis mapping I developed to inform the workshop’s agenda.

We originally envisaged 20-30 participants and received funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to make this happen.

We soon had some 40 participants on our list, and then over 60 by the summer. This was no longer “workshop size” but an international conference in its own right. Humanitarian and human rights practitioners had signed on, as had leading scholars, software and technology developers, policy makers and major donors.

We chose to host ICCM 2009 at John Carroll University (JCU) in Cleveland,  which is where Jen is Professor of International Relations. Several factors contributed to this decision. First, the workshop idea was Jen’s to begin with (I just scaled it up); Second, we wanted to avoid the usual conference destinations and offer something different; and Third, JCU offered generous in-kind contributions and very kindly waived all overhead fees.

We plan to give participants a different kind of conference experience. Participating in MobileActive08 and particularly LIFT09 got me excited about conference design. Being a big fan of the TED and Pop!Tech conferences, I wanted to style them along those lines. This meant having Ignite Talks, a Tech Fair, Birds of a Feather Sessions and Open Roundtables. The key, I have learned, is to find the right balance between structured and unstructured time.

Humanity United (HU) saw the potential of ICCM 2009 and became the third official sponsor of the conference. This allowed us to expand the participant list to 80. Our collaboration with HU also gave us the opportunity to think post-ICCM 2009 in more detail.

Jen and I had talked strategy earlier in the year but this was with the assumption that the workshop would comprise 30 participants.

So we pondered this in early August and quickly realized that the incredible response to ICCM 2009 gave us a unique opportunity. Not only would the event be the first of it’s kind in the world in terms of focus, content and opportunities for collaboration and networking, but it would also serve to officially launch the field of crisis mapping in a very big way.

To be sure, with the majority of the world’s leading crisis mappers at the table, the conference presented an unprecedented opportunity to  define the future of the field.

As more high quality participants continued to sign up for the conference, we had to introduce registration fees to balance the budget which was already very tight. By mid-September, 100 conference participants had registered for ICCM 2009, a far cry from the original 30 we have envisaged. We were now starting to get overstretched in terms of space and facilities. And all throughout, it was just Jen and I trying to keep the ship on course.

We designed our strategy plan and rolled it out in September, adding a Twitter feed to ICCM 2009 which we have recently ramped up. We contacted several news organizations and have had some positive responses. We expect one or two articles in the mainstream media to reference the conference in the coming weeks.

Towards the end of September, we had little choice but to close off registration. This means a dozen late-arrivals were regrettably turned away. Neither Jen or I wanted to turn anyone away but we simply could not physically accommodate any more participants. One colleagues suggested that was a good problem to have.

So here we are, 5 days until show time. We’re busy with final preparations and excited to be welcoming some 100 participants to Cleveland (see this great NYT article on Cleveland). Participants from as far afield as New Zealand, Colombia and the Sudan are joining us for ICCM 2009. We look forward to kicking off the conference on Friday morning with the Ignite Talks.

The videos of the Ignite Talks will be uploaded to the ICCM website shortly after the conference. We look forward to a lot of user generated content via individual blogs and the conference blog as well as Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. around ICCM. The hashtag for the conference is #ICCM09.

I hope this blog post gave you a good glimpse of ICCM 2009 behind the scenes. And while we haven’t yet started the conference, early explorations for a possible ICCM 2010 are already taking place.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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