Thursday, February 17, 2011

RootsTech 2011 - My Take

As a regular conference goer in both library and genealogy lands, I have to give an overall thumbs up to the RootsTech conference. Allowing for the fact that this was their first attempt at hosting a technology conference centered on the genealogy market, the thumbs up get even bigger. However, I feel it my duty to offer an unbiased critique of what I witnessed in the hopes of: 1. providing those who were unable to attend another eye view of the event, and 2. adding to the analysis that will make things even better for next year.

Let's start with the positive:
  • Venue: Very nice facility. Clean, spacious in the areas of the main session and exhibit halls, parking was also nicely done. 
  • Exhibit Hall: Lovely and spacious....and extremely fun! They took the technology queue to the extreme with all the flashing bells and whistles - and it worked! Places to play, blog, interview, record, demonstrate, etc. Very inviting - a true tech playground that made you want to stay - I know I took more than one turn around to make sure I took in everything.
  • Speakers: Fantastic selection of speakers! People who knew what they were talking about and were willing to share their vision of the future of genealogy in relation to technology.
  • Outside events: Very nice.....Planetarium, Late Night at the Library, etc. Watching Who Do You Think You Are? on Friday night with the genealogy crowd was an epic hoot!  
  • Goodies: The Bags! The Bags! Ok, this was the most clever bag giveaway I've ever seen. Novell was the sponsor of the syllabus goodie bags, and instead of giving us all the same bag, as is customary, they gave out many different bags throughout the conference! I counted at least six different kinds as I roamed around and I doubt that was all - from giant duffel bags to laptop sleeves, to oversize laptop bags, everyone got a treat - although it did create some serious bag envy as the days progressed and new arrivals got different bags!
  • Demonstrations and hands-on sessions were awesome - need more of those!
Ok, now for the not-so-positive:
  • Venue: Despite some really great features, the steps were very steep in the main classroom areas and the only elevators were usually too slow to accommodate the crowds that really needed to avoid such steep rise and run. Created some really frustrated groups when trying to make it to the next sessions.
  • Sessions: Too many and not appropriately labeled according to difficulty level. This was a very common complaint. Each time slot included from 11-13 presentations. Even if a person visited each one for a few minutes, they still wouldn't have been able to gather anything substantial. I know the levels were supposed to be varied enough to allow for only a few of each type to be going on at the same time, but genealogists who attend this conference are likely to be tech savvy, which means most could fall into more than one category. Besides, a conference like this. where the future is the main theme, means we all want a peek at what is being discussed in the other sessions. And FYI, when the purpose of the conference is to have genealogists and programmers get together when talking design and function, it defeats the purpose if programmers are in one type of session and the genealogists in another. One comment overheard "All levels should not be beginner only". Several people were disappointed that many of the "all levels" sessions were very basic genealogy technology based tasks - most are hoping they clarify the level structure assigned to sessions for next year.
  • Syllabus: VERY disappointed in this area. Only about 2/3 of the presenters supplied syllabus material for their sessions (and I'm not counting the open discussion sessions). When we are paying $100 (plus airfare and hotel/meals) for this many sessions, without the hope of being able to attend even a half of them, it is expected that the syllabus is the gem we take home to serve as supplemental material for our learning. In any future RootsTech conferences, this aspect MUST be changed.
  • Communication: This one is coming from the pre-planning aspect of the conference. As someone trying to arrange a speaker's arrival and session material, the communication structure was extremely frustrating. Multiple people to e-mail, sometimes no answer back, many times only partial information on some of the info sheets, requirement of submitting the same info on more than one type of form and vague instructions. I understand that there was not a huge number of people assigned to planning this conference, but in the future, communication must be polished.
  • Support: Dear Myrtle had a great critique about the problems she encountered, and one especially rang true with us.....the equipment used for the speakers was sadly inadequate. Like Myrt, we wanted to use our own laptop for the presentation, but this proved to be a huge hassle which the team was not prepared for. Even when we did use the supplied laptop, one of their techies admitted that they pulled out the oldest laptops to use with this conference, and I joked to the guy that it was ironic to pull out the oldest equipment for a cutting edge technology conference.....the joke went over his head because he seriously looked at me and said "the newer stuff is being used in the offices". Really? Anyway, there were not enough tech assistants around to help with technical difficulties - one of our presentations was delayed by 15 minutes while trying to find someone that could help resolve our simple connection problem.
With all of that out of the way, none of these problems were catastrophic. In my opinion, they are expected rough spots when dealing with a first time conference. However, we are here to give feedback in the hopes of making things better for next year. It was an amazing conference and we are already looking forward to being involved again next year. Before wrapping this post up, I would offer another pipe dream for future RootsTech conferences: take the technology portion up a notch. If you insist on this being held in Salt Lake City every year, less and less people are going to be able to attend simply due to the cost prohibitive nature of such a venue. Since the genealogy tech field will only grow to its full potential with maximum broad range participation, make sure we utilize the best in live streaming and concurrent virtual participation. Even if you have to offer this at a discounted registration rate, I think this would ensure more widespread participation. The issues discussed at this conference are vital to our growth and development as a research genre.....we all benefit if more of us can participate.

As a fun way to remember this conference, here are some snapshots from the venue, exhibit hall, family history library and closing ceremonies. Enjoy! CD 2/17/11


Taneya said...

great post! I enjoyed reading about the good and the bad. as someone observing from the distance, I agree with the need to have more virtual sessions and also with the need for better communication. I wondered if you'd be willing to share any of your couse syllabi online at the rootstech 2011 page I created on the FamilySearch wiki? -- Taneya

Cheri Daniels said...

Sorry, Taneya, we've been behind in getting things taken care of since the trip....this is one conference that has a life of its own! We'd be happy to share....I tried to go find it among the other Family Search wiki stuff for Rootstech, but then I visited your blog and have the direct link, so I'll post some things from Chris's sessions soon! Thanks for the heads up!


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