Some Lessons We Learned Running Cascadia-R

Well, the first Cascadia R Conference has come and gone. I have to say that it was super fun, and well attended (over 190 people!). I had a blast meeting and chatting with everyone. Hopefully, we showed newbies that R is learnable and others that there are lots more things to learn about R.

The following is my attempt to document what we learned from organizing Cascadia-R. It’s not complete; I may add and subtract from it as I think of more things to say about the planning process.

Decide the tone. Our goals with Cascadia-R were modest. We wanted to get a diverse group of R users together in a safe and encouraging environment. We wanted our workshops to be accessible to even beginners, and encourage them in the use of R.

Part of meeting these goals of this is setting the tone. We really wanted to encourage all levels of R users to attend. All of our flyers, emails and promotional tweets encouraged beginners to come. We got help with making a Code of Conduct for the conference. Part of creating a supportive environment is encouraging diversity in both speakers and attendees. We did our best to reach out to current groups that encourage diversity, such as Women in Science Portland, and R-Ladies Global.

We also offered diversity scholarships to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to attend, and made diversity part of our criteria for selecting talks.

Start planning early. As junior faculty at OHSU, I’m lucky enough to be able to book facilities here, including the large learning studios where we held the conference. Having the venue secured early on made the remaining logistics of the conference much easier.

Much like wedding planning, there are plenty of conference planning services out there who would be happy to take over aspects of your conference, for a fee. You can spend however much you want to on these things. However, I believe that such a approach is not financially responsible. I also feel that taking a more DIY/bespoke approach can make a conference most engaging (see csvconf). We tried to do most things ourselves (including design, promotion, talk submission, workshops, and registration/logistics).

Iterate your budget. Think of a conference as a project with lots of linked dependencies. Your first plan is probably not going to be your final plan. Start a plan, iterate, realize that things are going to shift, have a backup plan. What if registration is not going to pay for the venue rental fee? Talking to simpatico sponsors can take much of the financial stress. In our case, the Rstudio foundation and ROpenSci stepped up to contribute some money as a cushion.

Remember, there are fixed costs (such as venue rental, and recording/streaming costs) and variable costs that scale with the number of attendees (food, badges, alcohol). Separate these out. When possible, pay off the fixed costs first, so that it’s easier to manage the variable costs.

Again, who is your desired audience and can they afford your conference? We decided to make our conference as affordable as possible to encourage as many different kinds of people to attend. We initially wanted to make attendance free for students. The problem with free is that literally it’s free. It has no value in the mind of a person who accepts free admission. So we decided to charge students a small fee just to emphasize that the conference has value.

Talk with others who have done it. We were very clueless about much of the logistics side at OHSU. I managed to get through by talking with a number of people here (including Robin Champieux and Shannon McWeeney) who have done conferences here at OHSU. Thank you so much for your invaluable advice.

Encourage each other and delegate. No one of us could have done all of the conference planning alone. Each of us took on various aspects of conference organization and brought in the others as support as needed. Some of us selected talks, some of us did design, and we all pitched in to get registration working as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Our slack channel on pdxdata.slack.com is full of our decisions. Slack was so useful as a planning mechanism that we only met online via Google Hangouts a few times, and only had two in-person planning sessions.

Be Willing to Make Mistakes. Lord knows I made a bunch of mistakes when I made announcements and hosted the lightning sessions. However, I owned up to these mistakes, shrugged, and moved on. Improvising in the moment can be just as important as planning.

Think about the future. What should the next Cascadia-R look like? I know it just happened, but we’re trying to envision what it would look like. Based on the feedback we’ve gotten so far, people really want more workshops!

In a following post, I’m also going to talk about lessons I learned when Chester and I put on our tidyverse workshop.