Reflections on Dagstuhl organisation

Last week I attended Dagstuhl seminar 22302, which I co-organised. I thought it might be useful to record some thoughts on what went well and what could have gone better from an organiser’s point of view. (Note: there were three other organisers; I speak only for myself and the others may well have different opinions.)

dagstuhl22302-group

Invitations

A Dagstuhl seminar is an invite-only event on a specific computer science related topic (proposed by the organisers) that is held at the Dagstuhl conference centre in rural Germany and subsidised by the German government. Attendees pay 50 EUR a day for accommodation and three meals a day, with no registration fee. So the cost is 250 EUR for the week, plus travel expenses to get there.

Not everyone knows the Dagstuhl model and with hindsight, that includes the invitees. We invited seven non-academics, but only one of them attended. There’s all kinds of possible reasons for this: maybe they didn’t have a week to spare, maybe the case is hard to make in their company, COVID risks, etc. But maybe some just didn’t understand the low cost or the overall model; at least one invitee said they’d come next year instead, but each Dagstuhl is a one-off. We perhaps should have made a clearer pitch to those unlikely to be familiar with  Dagstuhl.

This plays in to a related point: we deliberately invited many people outside the usual community for educational programming languages and systems, to try to broaden the field. But I think in general many of those “external” attendees declined and instead the group photo at the top of this post contains mostly familiar faces. In hindsight maybe we should have been more pro-active in reaching out to the “new” people and explaining why we wanted them there and how we thought they may might benefit, in order to also benefit from their attendance.

We invited 42 people and 18 attended, which is probably about right considering this was organisation in the time of COVID (Dagstuhl say 50% acceptance is typical). When travel decisions needed to be made last winter, some universities were prohibiting travel while some participants were not willing to take the uncertain risk. We had the option to run a hybrid Dagstuhl but we decided the benefits of in-person for the attendees outweighed the loss of some attendees who could not make it in-person, and personally I am still happy with that decision.

Programme

talk

One temptation at conferences is to jam the program full of content. Based particularly on our co-organiser Shriram’s experience and advice (which is publicly available) we ended up having 2 morning sessions of 1.5 hours, a 2 hour afternoon session after lunch, followed by 30 minute refreshments and then a 2 hour break before dinner. After dinner on the first three days was a 1 hour panel. This felt about right to me, and I appreciated the longer break in the middle of the day. In hindsight maybe we could have put the 2 hour break after lunch (several participants, me included, felt like a nap after lunch!) and then put the afternoon session before dinner, but it was still good to have the break.

One of the challenges of Dagstuhl is to avoid just making it into a standard conference. We did have talks: the first three days were spent on short (15 minutes incl Q&A, followed by some joint Q&A) talks to get everyone aware of each other’s work. Every attendee gave at least one talk — on a topic they proposed, via surveys sent out before the event. The last two days were spent doing responsive activities: two break-out sessions with topics decided on Wednesday, a sort of lightning talk session with last-minute sign-ups and a Google Doc collaboration session. I think that was a good balance although we ended up being a little late finalising and communicating the schedule to the participants.

That Google Doc session is something I’d seen work well before: everyone in the room loads up a Google Doc on a topic (e.g. brainstorming ideas for new research projects) and starts typing. Many ideas are generated and then potentially combined, and people can add comments on what others have written. We wrote two documents in parallel with about 20 people in the room and each was 3-4 pages after about 20 minutes. I think in general it’s a good idea: it generates useful content that people can refer back to, and it’s a good way for more junior/introverted/reticent people to contribute without having to talk in front of the whole room. I think in hindsight there were two mistakes: one is that I asked people to suggest ideas for Google Doc topics before they had experienced such a session, so they were suggesting topics for something they didn’t really understand. Once the actual Doc writing was underway I think people understood how it worked and saw the benefits. The other mistake is I had allocated most of a 1.5 hour session but the actual Doc writing dried up after about 20 minutes. So better would be either a shorter session, or maybe two consecutive Docs: one on a pre-determined topic to demonstrate the idea, then brainstorming topics for the next Doc, followed by writing it.

Social

snooker

Our programme left time for social activities which are a useful part of any conference: time to relax, to get to know other researchers and discuss work (and non-work) informally in smaller groups. It was nice to see a variety of activities: some running and walking, some music, some games, all optional and led by the attendees. Often these were adjacent — playing The Mind is an interesting challenge when you are being serenaded by Let It Go on ukulele just to your left. Personally, I enjoyed the chance to run with Mark Guzdial and Shriram, to play Wavelength and more with many of the attendees, and some good mini-snooker sessions with Michael Lee.

Workload

It was an interesting experience to organise a Dagstuhl. It broadly splits into five phases: writing the topic proposal to Dagstuhl, planning the invitee list, organising the programme, organising during the event, and writing the report afterwards (not done yet). The invitees and programme are the part I remember taking the most effort, to go from a blank sheet in both cases to agreement among the four organisers. The actual during-event organisation was surprisingly smooth; I was able to enjoy it just as much as if I was an attendee, which I had worried would not be the case.

I’d recommend submitting a Dagstuhl proposal to other computer science education researchers, especially those looking to initiate and strengthen collaborations in a particular area. the next proposal deadline is November, so now is a perfect time to reach out and start putting together an organiser team (typically 3-5 people). As an extra motivation, something I only learned while checking out yesterday is that attending is free for organisers.

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