On the 2 December, Health Camp was held at Citizen Space in San Francisco (thanks – Chris and Tara!). The aim was to hold an unconference discussing the growing revolution in healthcare (health 2.0) driven by technology and an increased focus on the patient as the consumer. A motley crew of entrepreneurs, technologists and bloggers involved in the health sector was quickly assembled by Bay Area Scot James Littlejohn to organize the event. We had been to Barcamp SF, Barcamp Stanford, MashupCamp, StartUp Camp and almost every other unconference event anywhere remotely near the Bay Area. We had also read the barcamp planning guidelines. How hard could this be?

I was one of the organizers of Health Camp and this post is to attempt to articulate what we learnt from the process of developing an unconference for the health sector (or what we’re doing different next time!).


1. Focus, Focus

We quickly pulled together a team of organizers and began to brainstorm themes and session topics for Health Camp. After an hour and some wine, we had suggestions covering the whole spectrum of healthcare and technology – more than enough for a week long conference. This lack of focus ultimately caused some confusion for our diverse target audience, many of who had very specific topics of interest. Eventually, we reduced our focus to primarily the impact of Web 2.0 on health care which made “packaging” Health Camp much easier.

2. Better small than not all

Due to our desire to cover the “big picture” we originally planned a large scale event over 3 days with hundreds of attendees, on-site camping, social events etc. After a few weeks of planning and meeting with potential sponsors and partners, we quickly realized that an event of this size could take months to organize successfully. I started to believe that postponing the event until February or March would provide much needed time to put everything in place. Thankfully my colleagues convinced me that holding a much smaller and more manageable event in early December was the best way forward. This provided very useful experience, helped to identify issues, developed an initial community and enabled us to connect with various people willing to help organize or sponsor a larger event.


3. Know your audience


As more than 80% of health camp attendees hadn’t been to an unconference before, we should have provided more structure through pre-planned sessions or themes. Many found it hard to comprehend what the event would exactly be covering, what was required of them and what was happening on the day. Having one or two pre-planned session tracks throughout the day would have provided this additional structure.


Due to our diverse audience, the number of attendees with laptops was less than for a typical barcamp. This had an impact of the number of participants that were able to live blog sessions or update the wiki during the day. Next time, we will make sure to promote the availability of wi-fi at the venue and the time for active online participation throughout the day.


Although pizza is often the full of choice for many barcamps and hackathons, some attendees did ask whether “health camp” and “pizza” went together. My discourse on the health benefits failed to convince so next time we’ll also have tofu and salad.


3. With logistics, small details matter

I incorrectly assumed that most people would arrive in the morning and leave towards the end of the day. Rather than have someone close to the main entrance all day to let people in, register them etc. we decided to just provide our telephone details on the door.

In reality, people came and went throughout the day. We should have had someone downstairs most of the day to let people in and most importantly provide newcomers with an overview of the day and what was going on.

The main session board was on a whiteboard in one of the session spaces. Consequently when this space was in use (most of the time) it was hard for others to view or update the list of sessions. Next time we keep this in a corridor or some other neutral space.

We quickly learn that its is vital for the board to not only list the proposed session but the session “leader”. By mid morning we had multiple sessions throughout the day with seemingly very similar topics. Thankfully, as the event was small, we were able to track down each of the proposed session leaders with some detective work. It is also important to include time for each leader to explain what their forthcoming session will cover to the whole audience. Many health campers didn’t understand the scope and objectives of some of the session from the brief description on the whiteboard.


5. Be a timekeeping demon

We started late and often let sessions over run as the conversations were very interesting or everyone was busy networking. This was a mistake as schedule co-ordination becomes exceedingly difficult. Don’t be afraid to curtail popular sessions as they can always be continued later in the day. Bring something LOUD to announce the end/start of each session (e.g. a cow horn, fog horn etc.) as the sound of multiple rooms of campers networking/discussing can be hard to penetrate without yelling.

So what happened on the day?

In spite of the above, the event was a great success and many campers referred to the high quality of the conversations and sessions at the event. The attendance was very diverse with an interesting mix of entrepreneurs, bloggers, technologists, researchers, and healthcare professionals. There was a good mix of ages and sexes which surprised some attendees. Sessions ranged from digital health records and online communities to health ventures, medical devices, ethics and disease prevention. I was struck by how passionate everyone was about the sector and making an impact. A number of conversations were started between health experts and technologists as to how web applications could help with key health issues (e.g. disease prevention etc.). At the next Health Camp we’ll like to take this a step further and introduce a “mashup camp” element where initial solutions are developed by collaborative teams during the course of the event.

At 9pm, attendees were still discussing the day’s topics over dinner – a good sign on a busy Saturday night in San Francisco.

The real success of Health Camp depends on what happens next. Soon after the event, attendees set up a wiki and discussion list to keep the conversations flowing on “health 2.0”. Others have proposed a regular social meetup/potluck dinner or offered to help set up a health Camp on the East Coast. The networking throughout the day seems also to have led to many attendees collaborating on new and existing projects.

If you’re planning your own barcamp event, good luck and its more than worth the effort!

Co-organizer and Mepath.com CEO, James Littlejohn has also blogged about our experiences with Health Camp 1.0.