Behind the scenes: SSI Event Organisation Guide
By Shoaib Sufi, SSI Community Lead
I started on the Event Organisation Guide (SSI-EOG) around the end of Q2 in 2018. It’s been an on and off endeavour since – writing in between other tasks and getting input from the SSI Training Lead, SSI Communications Lead and the SSI Director and other members of staff and collaborators. Eventually, it was released as one of our official guides in December 2020. But, how did it all begin, why did we produce it and what was the journey? In this blog we explore the how and why of the SSI-EOG.
The SSI and more specifically the Community team have been organising the Collaborations Workshop (CW) series for sometime now (since 2009!). As Community Lead, I was the event chair from 2013 to 2017, and then had oversight of the 2018-2021 events. The SSI has produced over 80 guides throughout the last 11 years. As an Institute, we document what we do as much as we can and share it, because we believe that being open and transparent encourages collaboration with others and leads to better results.
It all started around mid 2018, when, prompted by the SSI Director, we decided to write down the steps we use to organise the Collaborations Workshops. The original idea was to make it easier for the SSI to reuse the expertise we had gained and improve consistency in organising events. This would mean that we’d have almost like a checklist to follow the same (or similar) steps. It also connected with the broader intention to share our expertise with the research community to help others not to have to discover things from first principles.
Events are projects and they require a lot of project management to achieve on time, in budget, in scope and to the right level of quality. Knowingly or unknowingly, those who start or are tasked with this endeavour are doing project management – although in the SSI-EOG we use the term ‘Event Lead’ rather than Project Manager.
During the process of organising CWs, we’d built up a lot of resources: templates (budget, venue specification, roles on the day, etc.) and other process documents (timeline, publicity schedule, etc.), as well as the traditional workshop planning: focusing on the theme of the workshop, aims, the sessions, finding speakers, organising catering and trying to make it a bit fun by incorporating a social programme.
As I started to document the process we used to organise events, it became clear that we were using stages: exploring the idea, followed by in-depth investigation work, and finally running the event. This implicit process informed the stages we express in the EOG: Idea Exploration Stage, Feasibility Stage, and Event Project Stage.
I used Google Docs to do the original drafting of the EOG and others contributed material to this draft. Input on publicity from the SSI Communications Lead, Selina Aragon, was incorporated at this stage, as well as comments from a broader set of the team. After some discussion with the SSI Director, it was agreed that the use of a web-based platform for publishing the SSI EOG would make it easier to navigate and bookmark various sections.
I originally used Jekyll and GitHub pages but found myself building and maintaining a lot of Liquid templates to help build index pages and flow between pages – this was getting in the way of working on content. I then moved over to using Sphinx as it was purpose built for writing documentation and for deployment I used Read the Docs; we used the Read the Docs Sphinx Theme, it was purpose built to make the process seamless.
We worked intermittently on the EOG all throughout 2018 and the first half of 2019. Aleks Nenadic, SSI Training Lead, then organised CarpentryConnect Manchester 2019 in June. Aleks contributed to different areas and especially focused on developing the area of risk management and made more sophisticated use of the Sphinx platform that we were now using.
A case study from the COVID-19 pandemic
In early 2020, we focused on Collaborations Workshop 2020 (CW20), planned to take place in Belfast. However, the COVID-19 pandemic changed our plans. What would have been a ‘normal’ Collaborations Workshop 2020 turned into the first such event held online by the Institute. It was quite a turnaround and done in only three weeks by the excellent CW event lead and SSI Community Manager, Rachael Ainsworth.
The experience of changing CW20 was then reflected as the first entry in a new section of the EOG, what we term the ‘In Practise’ section. This section reflects the use of the EOG steps and advice - well in practice!
The review process
We then tidied up the the SSI EOG project on GitHub and made it a more friendly citizen in the space of open development process adding a code of conduct, a contributing guide, a license, comments on style, and some notes on the use of the Sphinx platform and our use of reStructuredText. It was at this stage that we documented our ideas on scope, i.e. what was valid to put into the EOG and what was not; the EOG is what we term an ‘experiential’ guide – i.e. it focuses on documenting what has been actually tried and what happened rather than just ideas about how things could happen or be organised.
A big challenge of working across the team was to come though: the review and editing process by the SSI Comms team. This was the first time we were using a GitHub based document and implementing an editorial process as part of the review, so it was a bit unclear and a somewhat technical process to work with a master branch. A lot of rework seemed to be taking place and it was difficult for the Comms to keep track of new changes made and sections that needed to be reviewed again before sign-off. We overcame this using the GitHub Flow model, an approach suggested by Rachael Ainsworth.
Release and future work
Finally in December of 2020 we were able to make the the first release; so what began as an activity to share our expertise and have a more consistent event planning process internally had completed its first journey and finally graduated as a guide – and what started as an individual endeavour was now very much a group activity and all involved were very proud (and rightly so)!
The journey continues with the planning and work on version 2 underway which will highlight the use of the guide for more events (including larger and smaller events); covering the use of the EOG for CW21, the RS Camps and the RSEConf.