UK Govcamp 2019: Reflections

A day of the uplifting stuff in London

I went to UK Govcamp 2019 on 19 January. It was the first time that I’d been. I wanted to go because for as long as I’ve known about it it’s looked like an exciting, worthwhile, annual event that’s relevant to my job¹.

Also loads of people who I think are amazing were going to be there.

SWAG CREDIT L-R @jukesie Notbinary Sam

Headline thoughts

  • It was fabulous
  • The organisation and facilitation was incredible. As a user I can’t think of a single thing that didn’t run smoothly
  • There was an all-pervading supportive and inclusive feeling about the event
  • The commitment, skill, and generosity of the organisers and volunteers is really something special
  • I can’t stress the significance to me of having a creche there enough. I didn’t need it this time, but as a parent I know that there have been many events in the past 7 years or so that I’ve had to miss because this kind of facility wasn’t available to me
  • I didn’t say hello to enough of my internet heroes and legends of public service² in real life
  • Faces in profile pictures on Twitter don’t prepare you for how tall people are going to be or what their voices are like
  • This community (and maybe society as a whole) hasn’t really worked out how to deal with being in a place where there are hundreds of people who you ‘know’ and yet don’t know at all
  • Jesus tonight I have met some amazing folks in the past few years who really help me out on multiple levels
  • I have a purpose and can make a positive contribution to folks’ working lives
  • In the unconference environment FOMO is inevitable. Look at all the great stuff that went on it is unreal

How it went down

I didn’t get enough sleep and I even woke up in the middle of the night because I was nervous about UK Govcamp like a chump. Thanks to reasons my self-confidence is the lowest it’s been since I was a teenager with an appalling haircut³. I am not very good at new experiences in general. I am not a morning person. My internet persona might give people the impression that I’m obsessed with flasks⁴. I shaved off my beard and I knew that people would ask me about my beard a great deal and hey I should have run a sweepstake on that.

I walked in the door and people were really welcoming. The first person I saw was fellow #weeknotes-er Graham.

Relax Dan yeah?

Introduction

Amanda’s introduction was really something. Funny, bold, inclusive, touching, clear, and other adjectives to describe something really brilliant. Human, perhaps.

Pitching

I was determined not to pitch anything because a) one minute I am scared; b) next minute I am not scared but maybe people don’t need to hear from the middle-aged white man about the thing; c) it’s likely anything I had to suggest would be covered by others anyway.

However, Jeni suggested that I pitch something on a certain topic and I said no but then as the pitching queue diminished and I looked at the grid and calculated how many slots were left I thought “hey Dan why not, Beyoncé and what have you and also the CEO of the Open Data Institute suggested that you do it”.

Nonetheless, I found the pitching really intimidating. I say this as somebody who doesn’t really mind being on stage and addressing large audiences. I don’t think that the team could have done anything to make it more inclusive and supportive in the format that it was in, and really chalk it up to it being the morning and me being in an unfamiliar situation.

Calming down

I skipped the first session. Instead I had a chat with some folks that I knew (Sam, Jenny, Nour, DavidBuck) and generally got my bearings.

Weeknotes

I went to the #weeknotes session pitched by Jenny and Lizzi. The room was packed. It was great to see so many people interested in writing #weeknotes and to hear the various experiences and approaches from the people who write them. It’s fascinating to have been part of something for the past couple of years that has taken on a life of its own. I thought the overarching message was about doing something that is fundamentally for you, be it for your own state of mind and drawing a line under the week, or finding an effective internal communications channel and record of your (or your team’s) work.

Just write about your work if you can and don’t forget to throw in some links. It’ll be good, I promise.

Also Jukesie blamed me for introducing the animated GIFs.

Lunch

Lunch was tasty and there was plenty of it and I had a chat with Steve.

Big ideas

I went to the session on big and bold ideas to fix government for the internet age. This was probably the session that will resonate with me for the longest. It was interesting because the ideas and topic were profound, and it trod the multiple lines between hope and fear really well.

I had some thoughts, but couldn’t articulate them very well then and there. If only I could have regurgitated everything relevant in the moment that I’ve read from Cassie (needs) and Doteveryone (ethics, and the relationship between technology and society) off the top of my head. And there’s a sad point here from a personal point of view because I wish we could take the politics out of such questions, but I don’t believe it’s possible.

I did a session

This was an experience.

Hanging out and wrapping up

I missed the final round of sessions and had some chats with folks. Also I made a video, something I couldn’t summon the courage to do at the ODI Summit last year because Tim Berners-Lee had been in the building earlier in the day and/or maybe the canapés had been too perfect I don’t know.

Anyway, just like the intro, I couldn’t fault the outro. The massive card for James on his standing down from organising the event was particularly touching.

Pub

I spent a long time at the after party. The main highlight was being taken to school by John⁵. I stayed late, and had some great chats, but really not enough to satisfy the ‘I need to meet everybody’ itch which will never be satisfied Dan when was the last time you went to a party with over 100 people you wanted to talk to⁷?

Being open about your work

Back up there ^ to the session that I pitched. By that time in the afternoon I was feeling comfortable and able to speak about a topic that is really dear to me, probably my most important personal work narrative and principle in the past 7 years.

I was able to coordinate a discussion in a full room, albeit with help from more experienced people. There were laugh out loud moments. People spoke openly about their experience. It felt like community. This 45 minutes in particular was the shot in the arm I was hoping for from the weekend and I think it went really well.

I know you from Twitter but I’m shy

I read the following in Amanda’s post-UKGovcamp #weeknotes, and I felt the same

I’m toying with pitching a session for 2020 … on ‘CorridorCamp’ where we use one of the large rooms for folks who want time to meet with those people they rarely get the chance to see, rather than having to rush around the place looking for people. Would that work? Or some kind of thing for ‘new’ people to meet others, shy people to approach others, etc…

If you’re reading this and you recognised me from Twitter on Saturday (and you have your face as your profile picture rather than a goblin shark or whatever) then the chances are I recognised you too. I don’t have any mortal enemies that I’m aware of, so we could have said hello.

I’d really like an amnesty for “I know you from Twitter but I’m shy”. Any way to sign up in advance for “I’d like to meet that flask, knitting, and cake spreadsheets guy” or (more seriously) any number of people who I know to a certain degree but neither of us felt able to say “hi I’m Dan⁶” on the day. That would be really, really great.

Final thoughts

  • I appreciated having a proper conversation with Coco for the first time on the Friday night when I popped in to the pub for the pre-drinks
  • Esko and Alex and Sam and Jenny are amazing and I hug them over the internet right now
  • I don’t know if anybody else from the Houses of Parliament applied for the ticket lottery but it would be really good to see greater representation from where I currently work next year. Regardless of role (which is to say not just ‘digital’ folks), I think there’s something in UK Govcamp for everybody

¹ I am the Head of Data and Search at the UK Parliament. I’m responsible for developing and implementing our data strategy, and I work with a team of analysts, engineers, and architects to continuously improve our institutions’ work with data — both for the public and for internal users

² When I say heroes and legends please understand that I’m not talking about the famous people with the most Twitter followers. Setting those folks aside, there are hundreds of people I’ve come to ‘meet’ from all over the country doing really important work, really well, and often in really difficult circumstances. At an event like this I was interested to meet people from outside of London in particular

³ Reader that is a long-ass time I am 41 years old

⁴ My actual life is fairly flask-light

⁵ For the avoidance of doubt this is a figure of speech. Not only am I altogether too old to go to school in any conventional sense and nevertheless also able to get my damed self to school if I was going to school, but also it was a Saturday night so there was no school.

John Sheridan from the National Archives taught me something is all

⁶ Um, or mostly not Dan, in this scenario, except for Dan and Dan who I met for the first time IRL

When was the last time you went to a party Dan?