Crafting the AMC 2012 conference infrastructure

Each year the Allied Media Conference has more attendees and more content than the previous year. This is great, except it means that the information gets more complicated to sort through. That’s where we come in.

For 2012, we wanted to address a few issues we had noticed from previous conferences. For example, we wanted every printed and online piece of content to have a consistent look and feel. We wanted the web component to work better, offer easier ways to drill down, and offer easy ways to bookmark sessions. Last year, an overall printed schedule matrix wasn’t produced -- though it had been in other years. We thought the matrix was a huge asset for attendees, and we wanted to produce that again this year.

The Allied Media Conference (AMC) is very much participant-driven: each year, a collection of the previous year's attendees help decide the major themes for the event, and hundreds of people submit session proposals for them to review. The vast majority of this review and submission process happens on a little website called talk.alliedmedia.org. Ideas go in, discussion happens, human- and computer-generated magic is summoned, and a conference schedule comes out. It’s so easy!

Just kidding. It’s actually pretty complex. But for the purposes of this blog post, let’s focus on the end result: the AMC 2012 session browser and session program. During their developments, we respectively nicknamed them “seshbro” and “seshpro.”

Before starting work on the seshbro and seshpro, we were busy with both design and development work for other parts of the conference, and Allied Media Projects (AMP) staff were finalizing the list of approved conference sessions. An ongoing challenge each year is to coordinate any work that requires conference content while that very content is still being refined. While a web-based system can flex a bit without having perfect content, it’s a little harder to hand-correct a wrong room number in 2000 156-page printed booklets.

Import / export

This year we used a dynamic publishing workflow. By using XML and InDesign when designing the seshpro and seshbro, several people were able to easily make edits to many complicated pieces of information. The AMP staff and The Work Department staff could all make edits online to the conference information, including room numbers, session titles, presenters, etc., and when the InDesign document was opened, everything was updated. Not having to markup PDFs or printed proofs was a big help when it came to making sure information was up-to-date and accurate.

Print design: the program

To overcome legibility issues in the program from previous years, we first decided to simply increase the font sizes dramatically. This is easy enough, but then with increased fonts come increased page counts and in turn increased cost. We talked with our trusty printer and decided to also change the paper to a thin, uncoated stock from recycled content. Not only would this help keep costs down; it was more inline with the conferences ideals to use an environmentally-friendly sheet. But, with increased font sizes and more conference content than ever before, we ran into another problem: it had too many pages to be saddle-stitched. Another conversation with the printer led us to decide on a perfect bind. It was really the only way to go, considering that we wanted to have an attractive and useful program that didn’t threaten to fall apart (or not ever stay closed.)

Take a look at the final printed program [PDF].

The matrix

The printed schedule matrix is a grid of every activity at the conference, its time, and its place. This is an incredible amount of information, but it is extremely helpful to be able to look at one grid and see the whole weekend’s events. For the 2011 conference, a matrix was not produced and for the 2010 conference the matrix was included inside the program as a double-spread (8.5” x 11”). Even at the small size, we felt that the 2010 matrix was very helpful for attendees to plan their next steps everyday. So, we decided we wanted to produce a matrix for the 2012 conference and make it bigger. Much bigger. We designed a small poster-sized matrix that folded down to fit into the program as an insert. One side was the matrix and the other was a rad AMC 2012 poster.

The matrix proved to be a success as many conference attendees were seen using it throughout the weekend, but we can still tweak a few things for next year. For example, we want to include a page number for each session on the matrix that corresponds to a program page so more information can be found without searching. Also, we’ll have to keep in mind the growing content for this piece, as anything much bigger would be cumbersome to sort, or unfold and refold while in transit to another session.

Take a look at the final printed matrix [PDF].

Webwork: AMPTalk

During the preliminary project planning stage, we worked with AMP to develop a list of must-have and nice-to-have features for the AMPTalk website. These ideas were based on needs from previous years, like automatically-generated Etherpad links pointing to an AMP-owned server, along with new ideas, like pulling media from tweets about sessions and displaying it on the session’s page. After coming up with this big list, we scoured over it and broke down exactly what would have to happen for each of the deliverables to be, well, delivered. We found that some of the ideas stood on their own as gigantic pieces of independent work, and some needed to follow one another. After getting a detailed estimate together, we worked with AMP staff to prioritize all of these features. This resulted in two neat stacks of work: the session management/display system and the discussion system.

The session browser

We wanted to launch a new session management and display browser as early as possible, so potential conference attendees could see all the cool AMC 2012 sessions and, in turn, register to attend. Last year we built a session browser, but it was somewhat hacky and had performance issues. This year, we wanted to build something fast and extensible that can serve as a base for future AMC session tools.

One of the items that got cut off the original list of features was a mobile version of the 2012 session browser, but we’re in great shape to build a mobile app for next year: the architecture that we set up for 2012 will lend itself very well to building different versions of the app.

New discussion features

Our client’s dream is to provide a place for conference attendees to continue conversations past the AMC on AMPTalk. Many of the organizations that come to the conference use proprietary services to organize online and have discussions, and they have expressed interest in an alternative platform to find out what their AMC peers are up to.

When the 2010 US Social Forum was held in Detroit just before the AMC, we created a basic online discussion board system using Drupal 6’s Advanced Forum module and a bunch of other custom code. Both the AMC crowd and the US Social Forum masses relied on the website to coordinated housing and travel needs.

Since then, we’ve kept the forums available for AMC participants to coordinate personal conference logistics and have general “news and ideas” discussion. This year, we’re hoping to strengthen the platform. In an Indymedia throwback move, we’ve renamed “News and Ideas” to “Newswire” and created a voting system that lets other people on the site upvote articles that they like. We’re excited to see how people use this system, and hope to fine-tune the voting and sorting process to make it more usable and provide the most relevant content.

Up and coming

This year offered an exciting opportunity to implement new systems and practices to improve the overall conference experience. The process also generated plenty of ideas for adding even more features in the coming year. Luckily, AMP’s overall web presence continues to evolve as the organization and its annual conference grows. The frameworks are in place for us to add these functions soon:

  • Automatic posting of popular discussion items and new job board items to an AMPTalk Twitter account.
  • New sorting systems for the Newswire posts (driven by vote/popularity).
  • A mobile-friendly session browser.
  • Publishing content from the Newswire on alliedmedia.org (AMP’s organizational homepage and network-wide news feed) through a sidebar block or something similar.