Tuesday 12 March 2013

RootsTech - conferences and technology

As befits a technology conference, Rootstech makes use of some neat tech toys. As a serial conference attender, this set me thinking about some of the tech changes I have seen in the genealogy conferences I have attended.

Back in Ye Olden Days (I think it was about 1988!) the event would be advertised is a printed journal, and you would send off your application with a cheque. There wasn't usually much advance information available, but on arrival you would get a conference programme, and possibly some paper handouts at the talks you attended. At bigger conferences there was often a whole stack of leaflets and fliers in the conference pack.

Things really began to change in the 1990s, when the internet began to make its presence felt, and the genealogy world made use of it. First of all it was a means of communication, and that was when I first remember chatting to people on genealogy newsgroups and then meeting them in person at conferences. But things really got going when conferences had their own websites, or at least their own pages on the host organisation's site. Even better, you could eventually book and pay for your conference registration and accommodation online, using a credit card. This is particularly helpful for those of us attending conferences in other countries, so that we don't have to get expensive foreign currency bank drafts. It wasn't all plain sailing though; it isn't all that long ago that I tried and failed to book online for a conference in the US because the online payment system couldn't handle addresses outside the US and Canada. Oh well, transatlantic calls are comparatively cheap now, and I could still pay by credit card.

Syllabus material from FGS Conference 2006
Now every self-respecting conference not only has a web presence, but probably a blog, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page too. Another feature I particularly appreciate is that the conference material has become much more portable, thanks to technology. American conferences tend to be much bigger than British ones, and instead of handouts, speakers are expected to produce syllabus material in advance. This was quite a culture shock - the first time I attended a US conference I was a speaker, and I really wasn't used to that! I could see the benefit, though, as it was impossible to attend more than a fraction of the talks on offer but you could still take home lots of valuable material. The only trouble was, with dozens of sessions at about 4 pages each, you had to lug around something the size of a large phone book, and with airlines getting meaner with their baggage allowances, it was no joke getting the thing home. But technology came to the rescue, and, not before time, you could get all this material on CD, then on a thumb drive. Better still, you can now usually download it as s PDF file in advance of the event.

Syllabus material is usually made available to people who have paid the conference registration, but sound recordings might be available for purchase, so that non-attendees can share at least some of the conference experience. Even more recently, some conference sessions have been streamed live, so that you needn't be present to share the experience in real time. Less formally, you can bet that people will be tweeting or reporting live on Facebook or Google+ so that you can be sitting at home, getting live updates from a conference session, or even attending one session while keeping up with breaking news in another.

You might think that all these means of remote access to conference proceedings would mean that fewer people would want to attend in person, but this doesn't seem to be the case. In only two years RootsTech has become the best-attended genealogical conference in the US, and arguably in the world; Who Do You Think you Are? - Live! in London has a higher attendance, but is a different kind of event so the two are not directly comparable. Not only does RootsTech attract enormous numbers of participants, they come from all over the world, with sizeable contingents this year from both Australasia and the UK On-site and online are not alternatives, they are complementary to each other, and I believe that both are the richer for it.

RootsTech 2013 app dashboard
Now RootsTech has made use of another piece of technology, it has its own app, available for Apple and Android devices, Blackberries and Google phones. There was an app for RootsTech 2012, but his year's version seems to work rather better, although it is still not without problems. It contains the conference schedule, details of the exhibitors and speakers, maps of the venue and of Salt Lake City. You can create your own personal schedule simply by highlighting the events you mean to attend, and you can add your own meetings and appointments too. You create your own profile which you can then make public, so that you can see who else has registered their profile, and invite them to join your Friends list. Other features include links to Facebook and Twitter. Whenever you are online you can download the latest updates, and you can have the app on more than one device. I have successfully installed it on my iPad, my iPod Touch and my Android phone. It works best on the iPad, because of its larger screen size.

It's a great idea, and it works fairly well, but I have a few reservations. The schedule includes the conference sessions, but not (so far) the lunches, so if you have booked one or more of these you have to add them manually. The Twitter and Facebook feeds are quite useful, although it's not yet clear to me how to make use of the Friends list you create. The app is also where you get the most up to date news, and as far as I can see it's the only place where you can get details of all the exhibitors, and a list of speakers. I'm all for making use of  technology, and an app is an excellent way to do it, but it's a pity that you can't also get all of this information on the RootsTech website. If your device of choice is a laptop or netbook you will find yourself at something of a disadvantage.  So it's not 10 out of 10, but I'd give it an 8 at the moment, and with a bit of luck it will make it to a 9 soon, as some of the glitches that were there on its release have already been fixed.

This time next week I'll be en route, and I can't wait to see what RootsTech 2013 has in store. The first two were certainly a lot of fun, and I met some great people. I have every confidence that it will be every bit as good. See you there, online or in person.


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