Other than the conference reception and social planned for 9 pm tonight, the first day of FECS 2013 has concluded.  I got a late start today, since arriving at 2 am Chicago-time had me sleeping through my normal wake-up time, but as it turned out I only missed the (more generally focused) WorldComp keynotes in the morning.  While I’ve attended this conference previously in 2007, I’m seeing it with new eyes this year for a variety of reasons.  And it’s turning out to be a study in the relationship between conference logistics and conference culture.

First, FECS is a part of WorldComp (The World Congress in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, and Applied Computing), which means that it’s co-located with 21 other small conferences, in a variety of computing-focused areas.  So although FECS is small, with no parallel sessions for example, it feels bigger.  In some ways this is an advantage, particularly for people with research interests in multiple areas.  I could imagine, for example, someone with an interest in computing education and data mining having many sessions of interest.  But in other ways, it’s a definite disadvantage.  During the breaks all of the various conference attendees mingle in a single room, which oddly makes it harder to start conversations.  At a computing-education focused conference you can walk up to anyone at random and have something to say, making networking easier.  At least during the first break I didn’t find anyone to talk to who wasn’t already in a group clearly discussing research or clearly on their way to something else.  It means I’ve gone a whole afternoon without meeting anyone, something that will no doubt be remedied at the reception and dinner tonight.  That’s not something that would happen at any of the SIGCSE or SIGITE associated conferences.

Another odd thing about the first afternoon of talks is the lack of correspondence between what is being presented and what is listed in the program.  Somone presented today who was supposed to present tomorrow.  People who were on the schedule just didn’t show up.  And the order of presentations seemed to be shuffled randomly in some cases.  I don’t know if this is a common thing, since I really only attended a few hours of talks, but I suspect that it’s a side effect of the conference organization.  This conference is unique among ones I’ve attended in that the deadlines don’t seem to be fixed and there are multiple opportunities to submit.  The last submission deadline is just a month or two before the conference.  It also appears that the organizers don’t require that you show up to present in order to have your paper published.  Clearly this gives flexibility for authors and also allows authors to get rapid feedback.  But it also means that the organizers can’t guarantee the program the way that I’m used to with the SIGCSE or SIGITE conferences.

The last logistical issue has to do with the location.  The conferences I’m used to attending take place at venues with just a few hotels.  As a result, the conferences tend to take over the place, and the chances that someone in the elevator with you in a random spot in the hotel is associated with the conference are high.  WorldComp is taking place in Vegas, and even as big as it is (they say they’re expecting 2000+ people), it’s just a drop in the bucket.  This hotel can handle conferences of up to 3000 people (thank you in-room TV ads), and it’s just one of many hotels within a quarter mile.  So this doesn’t feel like a computing education conference normally does.  Combining that with all the activities and events that Vegas offers, and you have a distracting and slightly diffuse conference experience.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not sad that I’ll be able to head out to shop after I finish writing this and before the dinner tonight.  But I suspect that it means I’ll meet fewer people from the FECS community and that feels like a bit of a loss.

Reflecting on the conference this way has made a quiet afternoon into a fun mental exercise on the relationship between logistics and culture.  What I don’t know is whether the culture shaped the logistics or the logistics the culture or both.  I’ll have to try to find some people tonight at the dinner who have attended either FECS or WorldComp over many years and ask them about the history of logistics.

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