Talking Heads

A slight misnomer, BarCampSaigon is not for those wanting to camp out in the woods and drink beer; it’s actually an open discussion forum for the community…

THE FIRST RULE of BarCamp is you do talk about BarCamp. Actually the more talking done, the better. This is the only rule you will see at one of Saigon’s most unique conferences. Organizers refer to BarCampSaigon as an ‘unconference’ because you won’t find some of the key elements of a normal conference here. There is no set agenda, schedule, or even speakers. All the content is generated by participants, and the entire event is free. Those who would like to present can sign up for a time slot when they register the morning of the event.

During the opening session participants vote on which topics they are most interested in attending. The most popular topics get larger rooms and more time to present, but anyone who would like to can present regardless of how many votes they receive. About 60 percent of the presentations are in Vietnamese and 40 in English, and presenters are encouraged to add subtitles to their submissions to make them accessible to everyone.

The ‘camp’ began in the technology community and most discussions are related to technology, media, or marketing. Some of the more popular sessions in Saigon events have been about mobile apps and iOS development, and past years have seen everything from neuroscience to more eccentric topics like “How to date a Cambodian girl” on the table.

“My friend asked me to come to BarCamp with her. I was afraid it would be boring with only presentations about technology, but it wasn’t, there were a lot of different topics. I enjoyed it so much,” says Chan Sun, who has been attending the unconference since 2010.

Since the participants determine the topics there are forums for everyone from the tech-savvy to the digitally deficient.

Finding the Pulse of a city

The BarCamp format has taken off in many developing countries, the largest event in the world, surprisingly, is BarCampYangon. The open presentation and voting format allows participants, and businesses that are interested in a specific country, to see what ideas are important in a particular city or region.

One of the main organizers Anh-Minh Do explains, “Every year we get at least 20 – 50 foreign participants who fly in from as far away as Germany just for BarCamp because it is a great way to get a pulse on what is happening at the moment in any given tech and non-tech community.”

The first one was held in 2008 with about 200 participants. Since then it has expanded rapidly. Last year they had over 800 participants, and organizers are expecting about 1,000 at this year’s unconference. The event has also evolved dramatically with the growing numbers.

“We get immediate feedback on the event during the closing session. People love to complain at this session and it’s great for us. That’s why we’ve adapted so much every year,” says Minh.

For the first time this year BarCamp will be held over two days. The first day will include preparation time for participants who would like to learn how to present. This extra training is to help improve the quality of the presentations as well as encourage more people to present. Other new features are iOS and Android apps developed specifically for this event, which will allow greater interaction with a larger crowd.

BarCamp relies on sponsorship for funding as there is no cost for participants. However, presenters are heavily discouraged from using the event to pitch products. Many of the sponsors are tech companies looking to recruit new talent. This year organizers are trying to increase networking and recruitment opportunities for participants and sponsors. Even if you are not looking for professional contacts, BarCamp actively encourages participation in discussions and interaction between attendees.

One of the greatest strengths of BarCampSaigon is the passion of both organizers and participants. Everyone who wants to present is given the opportunity. “Nobody has ever been refused to present because of attendance, because usually presenters are there because they really care about their topic. I’ve never seen an empty room, but we’ve had rooms with four people attending and people still presented,” explains Minh.

“It’s a great place to meet new friends who are funny and talented,” says Chan Sun.

BarCampSaigon 2013 will be held on July 6 and 7 at RMIT. Registration begins in June. Visit www.barcampsaigon.org.

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