Conferences: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly aspects

June 17, 2010 at 7:24 am 4 comments

I attended a couple of conferences this week that are outside my usual community. Taking stock of and interacting with a new crowd is always a very interesting experience.

The first was the IAPP Practical Privacy Series. The International Association of Privacy Professionals came about as a result of the fact that the Chief Privacy Officer (and equivalent) positions have suddenly emerged — over the last decade — and become ubiquitous. The role can be broadly described as “privacy compliance.” A big part of the initial impetus seems to have been HIPAA compliance, but the IAPP composition has now diversified greatly, because virtually every company is sitting on a pile of consumer data. There was even someone from Starbucks.

I spoke about anonymization. I was trying to answer the question, “I need to share/sell my data and you’re telling me that anonymization is broken. So what should I do?”. It’s always a fun challenge to make computer science accessible to a non-tech audience (largely lawyers in this case). I think I managed reasonably well.

Next was the ACM Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference (which goes on until Friday). As I understand it, CFP was born at a time when “Cyberspace” was analogous to the Wild West, and there was a big need for self-governance and figuring out the emerging norms. The landscape is of course very different now, since the Internet isn’t a band of outlaws anymore but integrated into normal society. The conference has accordingly morphed somewhat, although a lot of the old crowd still definitely comes here.

The quality of the events I attended were highly variable. I checked out the “unconferences,” but only a couple had a meaningful level of participation and the one I went to seemed to devolve pretty quickly into a penis-waving contest. The session I liked best was a tutorial by Mike Godwin (of Godwin’s law, now counsel for the Wikimedia foundation) on Cyberlaw, mainly First Amendment law.

CFP has parallel sessions. I had a great experience with that format at the Privacy Law Scholars Conference, but this time I’m not so sure — I’m regularly finding conflicts among the sessions I want to attend.

I’m bummed about the fact that there is really no mechanism for me to learn about conferences that are relevant to my interests but are outside my community. (I only learned about the IAPP workshop because I was invited to speak, and CFP purely coincidentally.) Do other researchers face this problem as well? I’m curious to hear about how people keep abreast. I mean, it’s 2010, and this is exactly the kind of problem that social media is supposed to be great at solving, but it’s not really working for me.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Pete Warden  |  June 17, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    I have exactly the same problem with conferences. Over the years I’ve taken a few stabs at solving the problem myself, including ‘Event Connector’, a Facebook app that helped you find conferences that your friends were attending, and helping out the late lamented startup EventVue.

    A big part of the problem is that organizers are surprisingly conservative in their use of technology. They’re the only effective distribution channel for innovations, and they’re usually too overwhelmed by the traditional problems of putting on an event to spend much time on innovation. I think this is short-sighted, but hopefully some of the more progressive folks will figure out how to let people know about their conferences through social media, and have enough success to drive the industry to some standard system for discovering events.

    • 2. Arvind  |  June 18, 2010 at 7:53 am

      Interesting. I wonder if there is a case to be made for a “collaborative filtering for events/conferences” app. A combination of CF and leveraging the social graph would seem most useful.

      Although in reality success or failure is probably going to be determined by much more mundane things. I would say that learning about new conferences is a problem that most people don’t know they have, because they don’t know what they’re missing. Always hard to make a dent in this kind of space.

  • 3. Jodi Schneider  |  June 17, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I tend to learn about interesting conferences from the people I follow on twitter.

    This usually happens while they’re AT the conferences, rather than beforehand, but it’s useful for annual events.

    @Pete – I agree with what you say about organizers and technology – and with the overwhelm factor, as a recent organizer. There’s also an 80-20 effect: additional time promoting the conference to non-traditional audiences may not (seem to?) have a big impact, unless there’s a great need for new or varied audiences.

    • 4. Arvind  |  June 18, 2010 at 7:44 am

      That’s a good point — from the conference organizer’s point of view, there isn’t much to be gained by trying to reach out to the rest of the wide world to get an extra 5% turnout.


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I’m an associate professor of computer science at Princeton. I research (and teach) information privacy and security, and moonlight in technology policy.

This is a blog about my research on breaking data anonymization, and more broadly about information privacy, law and policy.

For an explanation of the blog title and more info, see the About page.

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