Creating an Inclusive Global Dataviz Conference

It’s amazing to me to think that Amy, Elijah, and I launched The Data Visualization Society just three years ago. I am now about to close out my term as events director of the DVS. In the time since I started this role, the amazing events committee and I have put in countless hours to thoughtfully launch the first annual Outlier, a global data visualization conference hosted by the Data Visualization Society. And now, we’re about to put on the second edition. It truly has been a wild ride. 

As my departure from the board draws nearer, I want to impart some of the goals I’ve had in mind since the first meetings around a Data Visualization Society conference, what went into reaching those goals and making it a reality, and what I hope for the future of Outlier.

Goals of Outlier

When we were first starting to plan Outlier back in January of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t yet hit, and we were planning for a live, in-person conference. Although the format of Outlier was required to adjust, the goals and vision have remained the same. The goals of Outlier from the beginning have always been to create a space where attendees can make connections, inspire others, and learn from others — all while keeping accessibility and inclusion at the heart of our planning decisions. 

Make connections

One of my favorite things about conferences is the ability to meet new people and make new connections. At in-person conferences, these connections happen through through chats with your neighbor between talks, break-time hallway conversations, and at evening outings.

Transitioning to an online conference brought with it the challenge of enabling these kinds of connections without the benefit of being together in the same physical space. We felt it incredibly important that Outlier should have regular opportunities for networking and connecting with others in a variety of forms. We see enabling these kinds of connections and conversations as one of the biggest measures of success for an online conference. We don’t want to create an online conference for which you could watch the videos later and still get the same experience. We want you to leave with new connections in the field, and really, new friends!  

Some of the ways people connect at Outlier are through chatting on Slack and in the events platform, taking part in the speed meeting networking sessions, and — the one I’m most excited about — through unconference discussions and hangouts, which enable attendees to congregate around a particular topic or activity, and meet others in the dataviz space with similar interests. 

Inspire others

In addition to a curated lineup of speakers, we wanted to create a space where everyone has the opportunity to have a voice. This is where the lightning talks and unconference sessions come in. With lightning talks, many are able to share their expertise through five-minute presentations. And the unconference portions enable anyone in attendance to create a session.

These unconference sessions can be about almost anything and have, in the past, included talks, workshops, discussions, panels, games, AMAs (Ask Me Anything), and even virtual karaoke! Many sessions were dataviz related, but some were not! Nevertheless, they all connect people from the dataviz space who have similar interests. The unconference sessions are not curated ahead of time. They are shaped by participants who want to share their expertise or lead a discussion or activity, giving everyone a chance to share, and creating a specially curated experience created by and for those in attendance. 

Be Inspired

It goes without saying that one of the main reasons for attending a conference is the ability to learn from others and be inspired. We want attendees to leave feeling they have learned something new and with excitement about the work that is being done in the field. We do our best to meet this goal by selecting an amazing panel of speakers. 

We also feel that meeting the goals listed above contributes to a more inspiring experience. By giving everyone a chance to host an unconference session and have a voice, you may find inspiration from someone you’ve never heard of, or where you least expect it. We believe this inspiration can come both from people who are well-known within the data visualization field, and from people who are up-and-coming. This is an important opportunity for anyone interested in sharing their perspective and exploring new concepts.

Ensuring accessibility, inclusion, and diversity

One of the clear advantages of an online event is that, since it removes the barrier of people needing to travel to one location, it is automatically more inclusive and accessible than an in-person equivalent, and is able to draw a more diverse group of speakers and attendees.

Outlier’s slogan is “celebrating the global data visualization community.” We have worked hard both years to attract a diverse panel of speakers, spanning across all time zones and multiple languages. By ensuring a diverse set of speakers, we are better able to provide content that reaches across barriers. We dedicate a lot of time to creating an accessible environment where each person in attendance feels included, represented, and heard.

We also felt it was important to create a pricing structure that is accessible. There are a few reasons for this:

  • We want to reach a global audience. It’s simply not realistic to assume that the same pricing will work worldwide.
  • We want to make sure students are able to attend
  • The pandemic led to a rough year+ for a lot of people, creating an environment where some are simply less able to justify expenses like this. But it doesn’t mean they don’t still want to learn!

Therefore, we offer three tiers of pricing that allow people to pay what they’re able, as well as an option for people to request a free ticket should they need to. No matter what ticket people acquire, they all get the same experience.

Speaker selection

From the start, our primary goal in terms of talk curation was to find and amplify diverse global perspectives on data visualization. Here’s how we approached our speaker selection and planning processes to reach these goals.

A public “call for speakers” 

Ensuring a public call for speakers provided a space for anyone interested to apply and helped us to avoid the pitfalls of an invite-only lineup, which does not leave much room for people who are not already well-known in the field. We spread this call as widely as possible, translating it into many different languages (with thanks to our volunteer translators) and sharing the link in data visualization communities from parts of the world that visualization conferences have traditionally had trouble reaching. 

Thanks to this open call for speakers, we received many applications from people who are doing amazing work, but who we’d never heard of, and who we were excited to highlight on the Outlier stage.

In addition, as a committee, we also did our best to have a fair speaker selection process that does not preference fame and ignores organizational affiliations, and instead prizes originality of the talk, relevance to the audience, and diversity of perspective. Additionally, we do not give any curated speaker slots to sponsors in return for sponsorship (which is in line with our no-pitch policy).

Mentorship program for first-time speakers

Many people find public speaking a scary experience. To help address this, we created a mentorship program where more seasoned speakers can sign up to mentor speakers with less experience, and the new speakers can sign up to be a mentee. The aim here is to provide new speakers with support and help them to feel more comfortable and to encourage first-time speakers to apply and speak.

Allowing speakers to present in their own language

Language is another major barrier that often reduces the diversity of speakers at events. To address this, we encourage speakers to present in whatever language they feel most comfortable in. All our talks are pre-recorded and captioned in English to improve the experience for both speakers and attendees. 

Covering a diversity of topics

We know that visualization is a wide, multidisciplinary field, which encompasses a huge range of subjects. These subjects include activism, health, business, academia, design, journalism, teaching, and many, many more. When choosing our speaker line-up, we aim to cover a diversity of subjects that matches the diversity of the visualization community, and fill in the gaps that other conferences miss, complementing rather than competing with others in the space.

Paying speakers for their work

Preparing and presenting a talk is work, and we believe that work should be paid. All speakers selected for the curated portion of an Outlier conference receive an honorarium to help cover the costs of putting together and recording their talk. 

Scheduling talks and events around the clock

With Outlier, we wanted to be careful not to have a completely US- or Euro-centric event. As a global organization, we felt it was important for us to create something truly global. No matter where you live, we believe that ticket holders should be able to enjoy the conference during their waking hours. That’s why we host ~20 hour days, with talks, discussions, and activities spread throughout. 

Looking forward

As Outlier is handed off to a new set of hands, here are some thoughts and hopes to pass on to the upcoming team. 

Staying virtual and global

Two years ago, when I first started, I might have said that a live conference was far superior to a virtual conference. In fact, I 100 percent said that! However, after my experience with Outlier, I have completely changed my tune. 

Now, to me, virtual means: 

  • Global and inclusive: People can join from around the world, without worrying about the cost of travel or visas
  • Flexible: Deciding for ourselves what a conference should look like.
  • Good for the environment: No plane trips required.
  • Comfortable: I don’t know about y’all, but I wore pajama bottoms through the whole event last year. ?

Something that I found really interesting was that one of the most common pieces of “negative” feedback we received after the first Outlier was, “I wasn’t able to watch everything live. It was such a bummer to miss things. Why does this conference have such a weird schedule?” 

To be honest, I thought this was one of the biggest compliments we could have gotten because it showed us two things:

  1. There was content that people were excited about and were sad to miss
  2. If the person missed out on something while they slept in, say, California, that meant that somebody over in India was able to attend, and able to interact with others live at the event. 

This is something I am really proud of. The Data Visualization Society is a global organization and it therefore feels imperative for the conference to maintain this global accessibility.

Maintaining focus on inclusion and accessibility

Accessible pricing, covering all timezones, supporting new and non-English-speaking presenters, and providing opportunities for everyone to have a voice are all part of the effort to create an inclusive and accessible environment. I hope that Outlier not only maintains its current focus on inclusion and accessibility, but also that it actively seeks out new ways to be even more inclusive and accessible. 

Keep thinking outside the box

We worked really hard as a committee to always be thinking outside of the box. One of the first things we did when thinking through Outlier’s inaugural event, was we identified questions that mattered to us — things we wanted to optimize for. After we identified what mattered to us, we started brainstorming them together, and coming up with ideas to answer those questions. We were constantly trying to think about what we were missing, or if we were missing any non-standard ways to approach a problem.

My hope is Outlier organizers continue to think outside the box. I realize this phrase is thrown around all too often, so I want to say it another way to get across what I really mean by this: Don’t default to what’s standard! 

That’s not to say that standard is necessarily bad. It’s just to say that it can be too easy to do what everyone else does without really thinking about it. Let’s keep planning with intentionality. Think about what really matters to the community and to the attendees, and then think about the best ways to reach those goals. ?

Never stop looking for ways to make it better

I am really proud of what the events committee and I have created with Outlier these past two years. I think it’s really something special. I also know that there’s always going to be ways to make it better. I hope that the Outlier team continues to collect feedback, does its best to think about what could be better, and then makes things even more amazing the next time around!

I can’t wait to see what comes next. ?

See you at Outlier!

Thank you to the events committee for all their amazing work. Special shout out to Evelina Judeikytė, who has been working with me as the Outlier Director this year to ensure that the show would keep running smoothly even as my available time decreased. 

As the year goes on, I urge you to keep an eye out for opportunities to be involved in future editions of Outlier, whether it’s to speak, join the events committee, or plan an unconference session. And I hope to see you all at the upcoming two days of Outlier (February 4-5 2022)! Perhaps we’ll cross paths in an unconference session or chat hang. ? 

Until then. ?

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