To celebrate SoNYC’s first birthday, we have been reminiscing on past events by highlighting some of the key take home messages, linking out to pictures and hearing from the co-organisers. (We recently summarised all of the past SoNYC events; you can read the recap of the events from the science communication and outreach strand here, online tools for scientists and digital publishing here and the implicational issues – legal, policy and community here.) It has been a great year and we hope you have enjoyed the conversations, whether it has been in person, online, or via our write-ups and Storifys.
To finish our warm-up to the party, we’re hearing from each of the SoNYC co-organisers. First up was SoNYC co-organiser Jeanne Garbarino from Rockefeller University. In her retrospective she details the birth of SoNYC and how the internet has enabled her to tap into a community she never knew existed. Next up is co-organiser John Timmer, Science Editor at Ars Technica.
Putting the team together
My role in co-organising SONYC has its start with the National Association of Science Writers. They gave me a travel fellowship to go to the Nobel Laureates meeting in Lindau, where I met Lou Woodley, who was handling the social media side of Nature’s partnership with Lindau. Nature had a series of local “hubs” in various cities, but the one in New York (where Nature has some of its offices) had gone quiet. Lou was interested in getting something going in the city and I knew a lot of the scientists and science communicators there through the course of my research career and a science writers drinks night, as well as through national meetings like Science Online, so I offered to help out.
While we were kicking around ideas for what might work in New York, Lou cryptically told me that i should meet Jeanne, who I was told was “The Mother Geek.” It turned out that we were both going to the same event at Social Media Week and working with Jeanne since then has made it clear that, whatever the reasoning, meeting her was definitely a very good idea. Jeanne managed to solve the venue problem through her work at Rockefeller, and has been tireless in finding ways for us to cooperate with various groups on campus. She also put the team in touch with our fourth organizer, Joe Bonner, who is both at Rockefeller and helps run the local NASW chapter.
One of the most successful parts of SONYC (as far as I can tell) has been its format: a monthly, single-topic meetings with a mix of presentation and discussion followed by drinks. It has worked really well for us, and appears to be translating nicely to other locations. It’s something we reasoned through pretty carefully.
There were some very practical reasons not to run a big, annual meeting. For one, New York City is expensive, both in terms of getting space and in terms of accommodations, and that would limit who could attend. Plus, New York had a huge science and scicomm community in place already, so it’s not like we needed to import anyone from out of town. Plus, there were already a number of excellent annual meetings, including the Science Online ones in North Carolina and London.
There had already been an example of a monthly, single-topic panel discussion of this sort in the city. Back in 2008, three graduate students ran something called the NY Science Communication Consortium. It ran a year’s worth of really successful panel discussions before folding as its organizers realized they had to focus on actually graduating. The format they had used – short presentations followed by Q&A with the audience – was also pretty close what we ended up with.
The only real difference is that, instead of a Q&A, we use the panelists’ presentations as a launching point for an audience-driven discussion (something you might call a semi-unconference). Lou and I had both seen this at events like Science Onlines in North Carolina and London, the National Association of Science Writers, etc., and we were in complete agreement that it was the best way to go. Lou, who seems to spend 90% of her life online, insisted on the livestream and heavy Twitter presence, both of which have really worked well for us and probably are the main reasons other cities are aware of this.
Another motivation for wanting to do something monthly was that the community reacts quickly to major events like #arseniclife and the Pepsi-pocalypse at Science Blogs. These ended up being a big deal as they happened but, by the time they were discussed at a big, national meeting, they’d become a bit stale. The hope was that, by having a monthly meeting, we could afford to jump on topics as they were happening. (So far, we haven’t really had the chance, though)
As a final benefit, I hate concurrent sessions. With only one topic a month, this wouldn’t be an issue.
We may have put the pieces in place, but SONYC has been entirely driven by the panelists and audience. We’ve been fortunate enough that people were willing to sign up before we had any sort of track record (our first panel, featuring Ken Bromberg, David Ropeik, and Gavin Schmidt, was excellent). And a mix of word of mouth, various forms of promotion and a bit of luck, seems to have brought in audiences that were ready to engage on the topics. We’ve been grateful for the fact that a lot of them have continued to come back for more.
SoNYC 4: Credit: Copyright (c) 2011 Sourabh Banerjee Photography. Any Use.