On Saturday, I was at AlterConf London, a conference about diversity in the tech and gaming industries. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that I was tweeting pretty effusively about it throughout the day. It was one of the friendliest, nicest conferences I’ve ever been to, with a cracking set of speakers to boot.
I was really impressed by how much the AlterConf organisers had done to make the conference accessible and inclusive. Most tech conferences are dominated by cis, white men – this was very different. Both the speaker lineup and the audience were remarkably diverse.
In this post, I want to talk about a few of the things that really stood out to me, which helped to make the conference feel more inclusive. Many of these are ideas that could be replicated elsewhere, and I’d love to see them spread. I’ll write about the talks in a separate post.
A disclaimer: I’m a cis white male, so I don’t tend to have problems at other tech conferences. Take my praise with a pinch of salt, because I’m not really the person this is aimed at helping.
As I write this, it’s the last day of PyCon UK. The air is buzzing with the sound of sprints and productivity. I’ll write a blog post about everything that happened at PyCon later (spoiler: I’ve had a great time), but right now I’d like to write about one specific feature – an idea I’d love to see at every conference. I’ve already talked about live captioning – now let’s talk about quiet rooms.
I’m an introvert. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy socialising at conferences and meetups. I get to meet new people, or put faces to names I’ve seen online. Everybody I’ve met this week has been lovely and nice, but there’s still a limit to how much socialising I can do. Being in social situations is quite draining, and a full day of conference is more than I can manage in one go. At some point, I need to step back and recharge.
I don’t think this is atypical in the tech/geek communities.
So I’ve been incredibly grateful that the conference provides a quiet room. It’s exactly what the name suggests – a space set aside for quiet working and sitting. Whenever I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by the bustle of the main conference, I can step into the quiet room. Some clear head space helps me through the day.
If there hadn’t been a quiet room, I’d have worn out much faster and probably been miserable towards the end of the conference. It made a big difference to my experience. I think it’s a great feature, and I’ll be looking for it at the next conference I attend.
This weekend, I’ve been attending PyCon UK in Cardiff. This is my first time at a PyCon (or indeed, at any tech conference), and one nice surprise has been the live captioning of the talks.
At the front of the main room, there are two speech-to-text reporters transcribing the talk in real-time. Their transcription is shown as live, scrolling text on several large screens throughout the room, and shows up within seconds of the speaker finishing a word.
Here’s what one of those screens looks like:
I’m an able-bodied person. I appreciate the potential value of live captioning for people with hearing difficulties – but my hearing is fine. I wasn’t expecting to use the transcription.
Turns out – live captioning is really useful, even if you can already hear what the speaker is saying!
Maintaining complete focus for a long time is remarkably hard. Inevitably, my focus slips, and I miss something the speaker says – a momentary distraction, my attention wanders, or somebody coughs at the wrong moment. Without the transcript, I have to fill in the blank myself, and there’s a few seconds of confusion before I get back into the talk. With the transcript, I can see what I missed. I can jump straight back in, without losing my place. I’ve come to rely on the transcript, and I miss it when I’m in talks without it. (Unfortunately, live captioning is only in one of the three rooms running talks.)
And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who found them helpful. I saw and heard comments from lots of other people about the value of the live captioning, and it was great for them to get a call-out in Saturday’s opening remarks. This might be pitched as an accessibility feature, but it can help everybody.
If you’re running a conference (tech or otherwise), I would strongly recommend providing this service.