How to run an unconference: an introduction to #hcsmeucamp

Dear all,

Below, we’ve made an attempt to collate our thoughts on #hcsmeucamp, the #hcsmeu (Healthcare Social Media Europe) unconference, dialogue-style:

Just like when we started out the weekly #hcsmeu tweetups, Andrew and I had no idea of whether or not the community would be interested in meeting up in person and how many would take the time and make the effort to come to Berlin. Just like everything we have done so far with respect to #hcsmeu, this was a bet, a leap of faith and an experiment.

#hcsmeucamp 1 took place on 31st March 2010. We are collating the outputs on our website and preparing to share more details with you about the three substantive action points we will be moving forward with as a community, although there is a sneak preview below.

When we started discussing a real life meeting, Andrew and I immediately decided that it had to be 100% held in the spirit of inclusiveness, participation and free flow conversation that characterize our weekly tweetups. The unconference format therefore was the natural choice.

The concept of the `unconference’ can be a little opaque, so we thought we might begin our #hcsmeucamp analyses by sharing with you what we did just in case you were thinking of organizing one yourself. Firstly, you’ll need a community of health care fanatics who are prepared to throw themselves into a day of high-energy discussion and action. Find one of those and persuade 45 or so of them to join, and you’re 99% of the way there

With respect to finding a venue, let just say it helps to have Belin’s most hip social media and Berlin insider as part of your movement (Big shout out and thanks again to Alex Schachinger


Seek out some progressive, forward-looking sponsors who get what you’re trying to do, and are pleased to associate themselves with it:

The fact that we managed to rally enough sponsorship to our cause to enable people access to our event free of charge was extremely important to us. We wanted to have representation across the spectrum of health care stakeholders and felt that any fee might have skewed participation of patients or HCPs vs. service providers and pharma. We cannot thank our sponsors enough for making this possible and for the faith they put in us.

Cram your venue full of tech. The more beamers, screens, video, laptops, and cameras the better. Your objective is to share everything you create inside the room with those outside the room as effectively as possible, and to find creative ways of bringing those outside the room inside the room. Make sure your Twitter back-channel screen is really BIG

…then get another one 🙂

Split your venue into three zones – the planning wall:

…a small group discussion area, with flip pads and markers:

…and a group feedback circle in front of your screens, with a flip pad stand:

Running the day

OK, so this is where our inner control freaks took over. Usually, unconferences are completely free-flow, but we could not resist. We HAD to impose some structure 😉 We thus designated roles in advance to:


  • MCs (Andrew and myself) to introduce the day to help you segue seamlessly between sessions, and wrap up at the end.
  • Media back-channels managers (Rob Halkes and Ángel González) to look after your Twitter and Ustream feeds and whatever other media you are using in order to make sure that the outside world can hear you, and vice versa.
  • Time-keeper (Miguel Tovar) to run and reset a beamed countdown who also keeps everyone apprised of how long they have left in small group discussion sessions, as well as collecting other snippets of digital media. NB: if you’re going to get through the day, this role is absolutely crucial.
  • Curator (Alexander Schachinger) to make sure that all the written outputs were collected, collated, photographed and preserved:

Here’s a step-by-step account of what we actually did. We agreed as a community in advance that we wanted to have separate sessions on the patient, healthcare professionals, pharma, and a governance session addressing what we as a community wanted to do going forward. That’s four hours’ worth of discussion, right there.

Conversations need constant refueling, so we built in a morning and afternoon refreshment break with delicious pastries and savouries, although we made sure that hot and cold drinks were available throughout the day, too. There was also an hour for a buffet lunch, so no-one was short of networking time or things to eat and drink.

The hour allotted to each topic ran as follows:

We spent the first twenty minutes plastering ideas over the planning wall (although folks were encouraged to add questions to all the pending sessions throughout the day)…

…then talked through them and clustered them together under keywordsthemes that kept reappearing. Silja is writing one of these keyword labels in this picture:


We spent the second twenty minutes discussing the themes we clustered the questions together under in small groups. Typically, that translated into our ending up with four groups discussing four separate questions associated with the theme under consideration. In practice, someone stepped up, grabbed all the PostIt notes clustered under the theme in question and said something like: `OK! whoever wants to discuss factors that exclude the patient, come with me!’ before retiring to a table in the small group discussion area.

We agreed during the housekeeping session that if you took ownership of the question, you’d facilitate the discussion, record the outputs on a flipchart, try to get consensus on an action point that the community could do something about with regards to the topic in question, and report it back to the rest of the community at in the final 20 minutes. Surprisingly, everyone remained keen to step up!

In the final twenty minutes of each hour, we gathered together in the group feedback circle and shared the outcomes of the small group discussions.

The day ended with our pulling together what we felt were the main issues that we could and should be progressing, and invited participants to signify their willingness to contribute:

And that was that.

What we learned:

  • Unconferences need some structure in order to function effectively, but not too much.
  • A willingness is required on the part of everyone taking part to change direction on the fly if things aren’t working quite as you hoped.
  • With no agenda to grind through laboriously, and a responsibility to all those who have taken time out of their professional lives to attend to get as much out of the day as possible, it’s important to listen and adapt if things go awry rather than steamroller through what you thought you’d be doing before the day began.
  • As seems to be the case with all things related to new media and its natural disinclination towards anything resembling the `command and control’ mindset, the more attuned everyone is to the idea that change is never precluded, the less likely you are to actually end up having to drastically change the way the day is running. We’d planned the entire day on a half-page Google doc in advance, and pulled everything else together when we met.

Won’t you join us at #hcsmeucamp 2 in November?


One thought on “How to run an unconference: an introduction to #hcsmeucamp

  1. Pingback: Are you in the Right Club or the Blight Club? Three missteps to avoid in digital and face-to-face healthcare settings « STweM

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