The importance of communication

When running a meetup, it’s important to establish a clear line of communication with the attendees and make sure that messages are sent regularly. You never know what attendees are listening to.

I learnt this when I was the main organiser of talks for Tech Meetup Edinburgh. One month I didn’t update the website with the speakers as I was very busy and to be honest, I didn’t think it mattered. I was soon corrected by someone who asked me what was happening that night, before politely but firmly pointing out the website was not updated. I could do nothing but apologise.

Every month I email events from Open Tech Calendar to a email list. Whilst normally I email events a couple of days before the month starts, on January 2013 I emailed it on the 4th. This was partly because of the New Year holiday – it won’t matter right? (It was also partly because there was a bug I was hoping to fix before I sent the email.) At a big meetup someone came up and said “I want to report a bug!”. Me sending the email several days late had meant he had missed an event. Again I could do nothing but apologise.

Recently I went to a meetup that was usually in a set pub. Several people had turned up, but not the main people. I asked the staff, and they were confused as several people had been asking after it and they hadn’t been told anything. They knew it was a usual booking, but this month they hadn’t heard anything. They asked me to get the organisers to call them.

The meetup’s own website did not list the latest events – it was two months out of date. Eventually I found someone on the phone who told me it was in a pub across town. Arriving late, I got chatting to one of the people sometimes involved in organising it who airily said “It’s all on Twitter”. That’s clearly wasn’t adequate.

(No names. I’m trying to make a general point, not have a go at anyone.)

Once you have established several clear communication channels, be they an email list or a webpage or anything else it’s important to stick to them. People are watching.

Annnnd this is the bit of the blog post where we start telling you how Open Tech Calendar can help with this problem. We know there is a lot for event organisers to do and they often do a under-appreciated job. We want to make life as easy as possible for them.

By adding your group and adding events in just one place, attendees can get an iCal feed to add to their personal calendar, a reminder email on the morning of the event or an email every time any details change. You can get a widget to place on as many websites as you want that displays the latest events from your group only.

And even better, our open Wiki design means anyone can add events. This way attendees can help out by editing entries and ensuring they are correct for organisers.

A lot of people check us to see what events are on, so give us a try!

Technical talks should introduce concepts

One of the things that I think is key to a good technical talk is to introduce concepts instead of getting bogged down in code details.

You see, most programmers are self taught. Which means that if they know something can be done and they want to do it, they’ll just sit down with Google search until they crack it.

So teach concepts instead. The idea will stick in the programmers mind and when they need it, maybe years later, it’ll pop up again.

For example, I found learning Android programming easier because I had seen a talk that explained the basic concepts of the activity life cycle and the intent system that sends messages between activities.

Or the talk about messaging systems that I saw was perfect for web developers. I think when I finally came to use a messaging system I used a different one from the one that was demoed (I used Beanstalkd and I can’t even remember for sure which one was demoed) but what was important is that the talk taught me a better way of moving the workload from the front of your web app to the back end.

So when I was finding talks for Tech Meetup, I would find talks like an introduction to user testing not because I thought all programmers should be experts in it (I wouldn’t call myself an expert) but because I thought every developer should at least know that it exists and the basic concepts.

I’m not saying you should never have any technical details in a talk; sometimes a technical detail or demo communicates the idea much more effectively than words ever will, and its usually more entertaining. But always remember to concentrate on the concept.

This is the first of several posts about running tech events taken from a talk I gave at OggCamp 2012. I’m not claiming I’m always right, but hopefully this will give people something to think about and start a conversation.

This is a repost from my personal blog,

More personalised services for attendees

Today we launch another tool to help event attendees stay organised – a personalised email on the morning of events they are interested in.

In your user profile you can change what triggers this email:

  • Turn the email off completely.
  • Choose to only be emailed when an event is on today you’ve said you would go to.
  • Choose to only be emailed when an event is on today you’ve said you would or may go to (the default).
  • Choose to only be emailed when an event is on today you’ve said you would or may go to, or is on in a group you follow.

todayEmail

Feedback welcome as always!

Making our event data as useful as possible!

As we build up a collection of great event data, we want to make sure it’s as useful as possible to all. So today we unveiled a help section about our API’s listing the ICAL, ATOM, JSON and JSONP end points on the site.

We are already working on a Javascript widget that can be dropped onto your site easily so you don’t have to be a programmer to take advantage of this – news to come.

There’s lots of other work going on, but a lot of it is behind the scenes. You’ll see a lot of cool stuff coming soon tho!

Import events from iCal, Meetup, Eventbrite and Lanyrd

To make it as easy as possible for people to add events, we’ve added importers so data from any iCal feed like Google Calendar or sites like Meetup, Eventbrite and Lanyrd can be pulled in easily.

We’ve actually been running this for over a month and importing all the events for WordPress Scotland; but we wanted to make sure it’s right. There were a number of bugs in the iCal parser library we used and in the end, we wrote our own from scratch.

We also care deeply about the quality of the data. We don’t want an importer to run for ever, adding an event that has long since stopped. So every couple of months, we temporarily disable each importer and send an email to those who watch the group asking if it’s still valid. It’s easy to re-enable if it is.

To use it, simply go to a group and click the new “importers” tab. You can add a new importer or see the existing ones.

You can see the results of running the importer to.

Any feedback welcome; talk soon!

Thanks to Toshiba Medical Visualization Systems!

Thanks to Toshiba Medical Visualization Systems for coming on board as our first sponsor! Many of the TMVS staff from their north Edinburgh office are regulars at meetups around Edinburgh, and it’s really great to see them support this community tool.

TMVS develops diagnosis and treatment software for viewing and working with medical image data. Their work covers a wide variety of areas including application development (both desktop and web), graphics rendering technology, image analysis techniques and investigations into new techniques for diagnosis. You can find their work integrated into a wide number of products including Toshiba CT, MRI and Ultrasound scanners. In addition to the jobs advertised on their website, they also welcome applications for internships both for engineers and clinical specialists.

We’ll use the investment to pick up some goodies like a SSL certificate for the site to ensure account holders details are protected, but mainly it’s great to secure the time investment the project needs to smooth off the rough edges and really get stuck in.

There’s been some great interest in the site recently, and we look forwards to posting more news and attending some great events soon.

We’re also building a list of tech groups

One of the side effects of building a calendar of tech events is that we’re also building up a pretty good list of active tech groups, and it’s time we started making that more useful.

The first step is to separate groups by location. Now when looking at a place you can also view a list of all the groups there. For instance, here’s the lists for Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. We’ll add more filtering of this list later (free search, those who held events in the last six months only, etc).

Groups are currently marked as being in a location when they hold an event there, but in the future people will be able to add or remove locations to groups freely. For instance some conferences move around. After they have held an event in one city they may not return for years and in that case you may want to remove the city manually.

As with all features, we’ll be monitoring how this is used and feedback is welcome!

New features! Personal calendars for all and more

Some previously mentioned features are now live such as weekly and monthly recurring events, and iCal import is in testing on the live site. But a whole set of other features that have never been mentioned on this blog are now live, and I wanted to guide you through them.

Your own personal and private calendar

Any logged in user can now say they will attend or may attend an event.

This will appear on their own custom calendar and a iCal feed is available.

This is the ultimate in filtered feeds; now you can have a filtered feed of only the events you are interested in!

Your public calendar

Your plans for attendance are private by default, but you can choose to make them public. In this case, your upcoming events are available on your user profile and as a iCal feed for others. Here’s my public Calendar:

I just want to say I’m going to be very careful about how the public features play out. I’ve used my own experience as a event organiser to think carefully about how a good calendar site should work and I don’t want to mess it up.

If it turns out people want to use the personal private calendars but no-one wants to use the public calendars, that’s fine and I won’t complain. But all that’s a topic for a future blog post, or a rant down the pub tonight.

Watch a group

You can choose to “watch” a group. This will do several things:

Any events from the group will appear on your private calendar and private iCal feed.

So your own personal filtered feed can now have events from groups you are interested in appear automatically. (By the way, I’m really annoyed I’m going to miss State Of The Map due to family commitments – it sounds great!)

You’ll get an email any time someone else changes the group or an event in it.

If there are no future events in the group, you’ll get an email promoting you to add more. (I launched this yesterday morning and already have two thank yous – glad you like it!)

What’s next?

I’ll be at TechMeetup Edinburgh tonight (in case you haven’t picked that up from all the screenshots!) so any comments or feedback can be delivered in person, by email, by twitter or in the comments here.

I’ve started doing lots of sketches to plan a new UI/UX that will simplify the workflow and functionality, as at the moment its generally all over the place.

In terms of features, I’ll work on more importers and an optional reminder email about upcoming events on your personal calendar.

We are also looking for sponsors – we don’t have a Sponsor pack yet but get in touch and tell me what you want to know.

Talk to you soon!

2 months old!

Our launch on Sunday July 22nd makes this Saturday our 2 month birthday!

(Don’t worry, I’ll calm down after a bit about birthdays. Mostly I’m writing this to justify the 2 slices of cake I got at lunch today. Om nom nom.)

 

Our website has picked up 1,000 visits, 650 unique visits and 4,700 pageviews  – and not a single one in IE6! Our geeky audience means our browser stats still follow a pattern most websites probably wouldn’t recognise – 50% Chrome, 22% Firefox, 10% Safari, 6% Android and 5% Internet Explorer.

Our ATOM and ICAL feeds are being picked up by multiple readers and I think a screen in Amazon’s Edinburgh office shows the upcoming events as handy info for the workers.

A wide variety of groups have added events from SQL Server to WordPress with OWASP securityOpen Street Map and everything in between.

New features include weekly recurring events, and monthly recurring events and an iCal importer are both in the final stages of development. A monthly HTML email has been put together and you can see a preview of that here.

We recently moved to a server of our very own on Bytemark’s Bigv cloud, which should give us plenty of possibilities for growth.

Thanks for all the interest and support we have received so far; it’s great to get such a positive reaction. I’ll have much more time to devote to this project in October, so expect more features and news soon.

“Lies, damn lies and statistics” – measuring our users on iCal feeds

How do we measure our users and thus persuade people it’s worth adding events?

Of course we have Google Analytics installed and we know we have had over 3,000 pageviews from over 400 unique visitors, but because we have so many feeds that is an incomplete picture.

Our Apache log shows 20,000 hits. But if several users add a feed to the same web based reader, then the reader only hits our server once.

500 hits are on our Atom feed. When Google Reader fetches our Atom feed, the user agent string shows you the number of subscribers which is very neat.

But 800 hits are on our iCal feed. Google don’t include the subscriber count in it’s user agent string like it does for Atom feeds.

When we moved from MediaWiki to our own software, the URL for the feed changed. Both URL’s still work and both are being hit by Google, so we can tell we have some users there. Also, there are filtered iCal feeds available (per group and per location) and we can see some of them are being hit.

It was suggested we give each of our users their own feed URL by adding a random number to the URL. Then we’d get hit once for each user but such a scheme would mean extra traffic for us and the readers software. Also, every time a Google bot saw our webpage it would think we had a different feed that it had to index!

But there’s a problem with all of these; they don’t count active users. A user could add a feed to a reader then never look at it again, and the reader will carry on fetching the feed.

What to do? We could make all the URL’s in our feeds go through some redirection service and count clicks. But that won’t count people who just look at the data without clicking and it could be annoying to users if none of the URL’s in the feed state where they actually go.

So how can we count users on our feeds? For now we can just ignore this problem and carry on adding features and building the site, but at some point we need to demonstrate that it’s worth taking the time to add events on our site and the most effective way of doing that is with good statistics. Any ideas?