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Lessons Learned from Organizing Data Science by Design Virtual Events

Data Science by Design (DSxD) is a community dedicated to developing a more open, ethical, and inclusive future for the field of data science. The group has provided an organizational structure for those who care about creativity and data science. In 2020, founding members Sara Stoudt, Valeri Vasquez, and Ciera Martinez began DSxD to elevate the creative side of data science so ultimately it attracts more diversity in the types of people who work with data. Since 2020, DSxD has created a collective anthology on the future of data science, a mini-grant program, and events / gatherings. They are releasing their second anthology entitled “Our Environment” this spring. Learn more on their blog.

DSxD works on data science broadly, bringing society, art, and process into how the community views data work. They held their first event in 2021 as a “Creator Conference” – part workshops and part talks–all aimed to bring together data enthusiasts of all kinds. They continued with DSxD Reconnect, an event aimed to reinforce community connections and spur the creation of more collaborative projects. Based on their experiences organizing an extremely well-attended and lively event, they share some reflections on how to help activate an emergent community’s energies.

DSxD process for building community through events and collective making.

Don’t record

There are pros and cons to recording a meeting, and it is important to think critically through them. While recording a meeting allows for people to watch a presentation after it has ended, there are also several downsides: when you record, you place stress on the people who value the event to be there live, and this stress is at their expense. By not recording, you take off

There are pros and cons to recording a meeting, and it is important to think critically through them. While recording a meeting allows for people to watch a presentation after it has ended, there are also several downsides: when you record, you place stress on the people who value the event to be there live, and this stress is at their expense. By not recording, you take off pressure for people to be more active during the meeting. Additionally, the speakers don’t have to worry about their talk being on the internet forever.

People want to build things together

Hijack this motivation whenever possible. Socializing, networking, and building community cannot be the main function of a virtual event - unfortunately people don’t have time to prioritize this outside of their In Real Life (IRL) friends and family. Thus, it is important to make the event about building something together to maximize engagement, and the secondary products can be community building. One way to achieve this, for example, is building a book. Finally, balance talks with activities. Not every activity has to be a breakout room (In DSxD’s example, zine-making went well because everyone could work on their own and then share if they wanted to).

Experiment! Even if it's scary.

Play with people’s expectations of what a virtual event is. Do things you haven’t seen in Zoom meetings. The worst case scenario is it doesn’t quite work, but at least people weren't bored. Best case, you have a new tool/strategy to refine for future gatherings. One idea to increase engagement in meetings/ presentations is to hire a live sketch artist. DSxD hired an artist at the Creator Conference and DSxD Reconnect, and saw significant success as it:

1. Created fun outputs to share after the meeting.

2. Is just fun to watch people sketch while attending a meeting and…

3. Encourages people to speak up to see their contributions visualized.

Be creative on how you assess success

Think about measuring the success of your event in ways other than just how many people showed up. For example, some alternative metrics might be:

A) Donation of time by participants (e.g. DSxD has those in leadership now who originally started as participants at initial gatherings). Often only academics have any incentive to do such service work so it is especially meaningful when those outside of academia volunteer their time to such service;

B) Engagement over time. For example, DSxD started a book club where they read data-related books together and met once every 2 weeks. This became a space for cross-sector discussions and attendees found it valuable because it was a place of warmth, no judgment, and non-competitive discussion.

Have the attendees prepare for the event with minimal effort

For example, the function of Creator Conf for attendees was to be inspired to work on creative data projects; to ensure participants thought about the synchronous time together, DSxD required an application for participation. The form asked applicants to provide 1-2 sentences about projects they want to pursue and projects/people who inspire them. Bonus benefit: Participants become invested in attending. The DSxD acceptance-to-attendance rate was very high. This may have also been a function of a very personal acceptance email. So perhaps another nugget of advice here is to keep the scale of the event a reasonable size.

As much as possible, let people opt out of activities.

A participant doesn’t and shouldn’t have to go to everything. Make it OK to hop in and out of Zoom and not feel weird. This is a similar approach to the way DSxD runs its book club. One way to do this is to create activities where participants can sit back and collaborate. For example, there was a zine-making breakout session where everyone had their camera off but in order to share they could flip on. DSxD also made “networking” optional. Breaks were built in between sessions that included everyone in the room, but it was optional to chat. The breakout rooms fostered a lot of informal chit chat that almost felt like the kind of informal chatter that happens in real life events. Consent is a concept that people in this community really care about and was built into the design of DSxD events. The ethos of the event was that no one expects you to do something you are not comfortable with. To quote Priya Parker, “a real no makes a real yes possible.” Therefore, people who were at the event really wanted to be there.

Compensate people for their time

This is an important approach as it enhances engagement and motivation during meeting time. Event Fund support enabled the DSxD organizers to offer a stipend for the organizing team and our speakers. Another form of compensation comes from the support when contributing to DSxD activities. For example, every piece that is contributed to the anthology receives support throughout the entire process, from help with the design, professional editing, and many times, designers and illustrations to accompany what each contributor creates. Also, whenever possible, we offer little incentives that just help collaboration run more smoothly, like Zoom accounts and the purchasing of books that we read in the book club.

Don't be afraid to reach out to people who seem out of reach and make it easy for them to say yes

You might be surprised that someone you think would never make time for your event might be willing to, especially if you make it easy for them to say yes by providing compensation, guidance, and asking them to do as little prep as possible (interview, panel discussions are great!) or have them remix content they already put work into.

It’s been almost two years since that first event, but the connections we made continue to this day. We are a collective of people that truly revel in creating work together and continue to celebrate creativity in data work wherever we find it. Stay tuned for our second book — it is filled with beautiful pieces all created within the theme “Our Environment” where we ask “What worlds do we occupy and how does data affect these worlds?” Stay tuned at our website and on Twitter @DataScixDesign.

Featured photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash.