Eventgineering: getting wifi right at events

http://www.flickr.com/photos/davezilla/448864165/ I AM NEEDS MOAR WIFI by Davezilla

Anyone who has read this blog for a while will know I am fascinated by the way events have been changing in the last few years.  The rise of the unconference, live streaming and the backchannel are all elements I have written about before and I firmly believe we are only at the start of an even bigger change.

There is a massive hurdle to leap over though before we can really embrace the opportunities and that is the fact that so few venues can cope with the technical demands of these new kinds of delegates.  In years gone by complaints about the food and temperature dominated the feedback (not that this has stopped!) but increasingly the feedback is dominated by complaints about sketchy wifi and lack of power.

The power issue is more a logistical one than anything else but it is something that needs much more consideration but the wifi problems are a more complicated problem to solve.  For this I think we need to see the rise of the eventgineer (I saw this ‘word’ online and took a liking to it for this idea though I didn’t originally see it in this context!)

Joel Spolsky, founder of Stack Overflow amongst other things, wrote a useful post identifying the issues that modern tech events bring up for event organisers and venues and Esme Vos put together a hugely useful post that includes an insightful interview with Tim Pozar, a network specialist that Techcrunch brought in to fix wifi problems they had had at previous events, where he highlights many of the common problems and what steps need to be taken to overcome them.  Another useful couple of posts are based around work that Event Engineers (a Dutch company) did for the Next Web Conference.  This is another early adopter event that puts a massive strain on the event network but with some foresight, planning and a little cash they were able to ensure the event went smoothly.

What all these posts demonstrate to me is that event organisers need to identify the need to augment the limited technical support most venues can offer and budget to bring in specialist support for any event where the network is likely to get heavy use.  In recent years it has become increasingly commonplace to see people like Switch brought in to handle things like live-streaming and I think the same kind of attitude needs to be taken with ensuring that delegates get the best out of the wireless network.

A quick search of Google does make it clear that currently there are not many UK companies obviously offering these sort of services – although with a bit of digging you can find information about people who can offer help – Bristol Wireless for instance are able to do most of the kind of things suggested but it comes across as more of an after-thought rather than core business (which it probably is to be honest).  I believe there is a genuine need for a company to step forward into this space (much like Switch did with the streaming) and even if it focused on public sector and education conferences it would still find more than enough to do!

It is increasingly rare for the early stages of a conference Twitter stream NOT to be dominated with complaints about the wireless provision and this does nothing to enhance the reputation of these events!  Last week the eScience All Hands meeting online chat was full of moans about the wifi at an otherwise very successful event.

JISC have some events coming up that will put serious stress on whatever networks are available and I’m hoping to try out some of the suggestions in these posts to see what kind of impact that has and I have already started lobbying internally for more thought to be given to support in these areas beyond that given by the venue.

UPDATE: Oops – forgot to mention that AirAppz are based in Ireland so relatively close by and do offer these services and Evert Bopp wrote one of the posts referenced above is I think the founder.

4 thoughts on “Eventgineering: getting wifi right at events

  1. We’ve noticed this too in the Plone community. Last year the Plone Conference was held in Washington DC in a large federal building which supposedly offered Wifi for the conference guests. I guess they just really don’t expect 350 people to turn up with about 700 wifi devices! Being a tech conference pretty much everyone had a smart phone and a laptop with them. Very quickly the network crumbled under the onslaught.

    So this year at the Plone Conf in Budapest the community decided to run its own wifi network connected to the venue’s (a university) network. It was a fantastic success and certainly made the whole event a lot smoother.

    Info on the guy who did it, Wyn Williams, and his blog post here:
    http://www.open-eye-consulting.com/plone-bits/plone-bits/lessons-learned-or-how-to-not-screw-up-to-much

    I think venues certainly need to beef up their networks if running tech events. There were a number of tweets about the lack of WiFi at the IMS Expo in Olympia a couple of weeks ago (and WiFi problems with associated Online 09 conference upstairs)… kinda ironic given the nature of the event.

    -Matt

  2. Matt says:

    Cheers for that article Matt – very useful – sounds like a set of common problems when using an academic venue as well! Is IMS the same show as Online? If so it got a pretty bad press on Twitter and the blogs about just how bad the connectivity was.
    I think most venues still see the need for this kind of solid technical support as a rare thing and are used to holding all the cards really when it comes to events of a certain scale (like Spolsky said in his blog alot of the time just finding a venue with the right capacity is hard enough) so they don’t give it much priority – thats why I think more and more events are going to have to do what you guys did at the Plone event – sort it yourselves or bring in some help who can do it for you.

  3. Yes, IMS is that same as Online (Online is the conference, IMS is the show expo). We had network connectivity provisioned to the Plone stand (at the usual exorbitant show rates of several hundred quid for three days) and I guess they wouldn’t want to undercut themselves out of a lucrative income there. We provided wifi on the stand which we let some others use as well.

    I think it may become a more common service, just like you bring in a catering service, you would bring in a wifi service. I know what you mean about venues though, I was looking into a venue that could hold 400 people in one room, with 3 other rooms of up to 100 each… very hard to find in Bristol. Only found two places so far (Ashton Gate Stadium and The Grand Hotel). Both say they offer wifi, but I’m pretty sure neither could handle the requirements we’d need and would have to provide our own.

    I think Bristol Wireless would be happy to help you out with things like this, as I think they’ve done it for festivals and the likes before.

    -Matt

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