How the Internet Connects Knowledge


Article from Issue 94/2008

Learn from the chair of HICK Tech how to roll out your own community event.

In the land of milk, honey, and the Internet, it is possible to become disengaged from the physical community that surrounds us. HICK Tech started in 2007 in a small Canadian town as a one-day community technology conference. Since then, the conference has grown into a community technology consulting service with international speaking engagements [1][2]. In a region in which dial-up Internet connections are still common, HICK Tech has found some unexpected successes that might surprise urbanites and rural dwellers alike. The lessons learned from HICK Tech are applicable to communities of all shapes and sizes [1].

Know Your Strengths

My first year, I tried hard to make HICK Tech just like my favorite big-city conferences. We are not a Web 2.0 community. So in my second year, I bought cowboy boots and relaxed into the experience I was providing. HICK Tech now focuses on local: local speakers, local food, and the local hockey rink for the venue. All food served at the 2008 conference was grown, caught, or produced within 100 miles of the venue (with the exception of coffee). Food brought people together. You've probably never shared your experience of drinking a Diet Coke, but fresh maple syrup--sweetened cookies made from locally grown and milled flour creates a flavor that has to be shared, not to mention the local beer. Starting with a bag piper and ending with a jazz duo, music became a shared experience, as well. At your event, figure out what is unique and relevant to your region. Make it as important as the technology to help put a human face on the experience you are providing [2].

Attract Real People

For many conference organizers involved in a technical community, it is easy to create a dream list of speakers, but it is much harder to list people who will definitely attend an event on a specific date sometime in the future. I have come to realize a single client empowered to ask the right kinds of questions is as valuable – if not more so – than a developer who's learned a new time-saving trick. HICK Tech focuses on engaging and empowering the kinds of people that I want to work with. Look beyond the usual suspects. In my community, the early adopters of technology include grandmothers connecting with their grandkids via Facebook. These women are part of the local matriarchy – they are experts at networking and very good at convincing their friends (and husbands) to participate in events. Consider it viral marketing honed over 50 years to a very fine art.

Ensure your participants can see themselves reflected in the speaker line-up. One of the best presentations I had at the first HICK Tech conference was delivered by the local animal shelter. The Animal Control Officer is a self-proclaimed technophobe, but she is an amazing storyteller. The story of how her website went from seven visitors a day to 7,000 is both charming and incredibly powerful. Not only do attendees want to be educated, they want to be inspired and entertained, and Renee delivered on all counts. Choose your speakers for their expertise as well as their ability to engage an audience. Talk to your speakers on the phone. Remember that it is better to have fewer speakers who are inspirational than a roster of presentations that bore or confuse people.

Figure 1: Nora Young leads the panel discussion. Pictured from left to right: Meg Pickard (, Sean McGivern (Saugeen Specialty Grains), Glen Estill (Sky Generation wind turbines), Leigh Honeywell (hacker), Nora Young (CBC Radio).

© Image courtesy by Emma Hogbin

Ask Others to Share Their Passion

The easiest way to get great speakers is to ask people you admire. In my first year, I requested session descriptions from the presenters; in my second year, I relied on the personalities and the expertise of my speakers. Both approaches work, but allowing speakers to talk about their current passion can be more engaging for the audience. The inspiration for this comes from the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference. Videos of the presentations from this conference are available online [3].

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