The RecSys 2011 PeMA Workshop

For ACM RecSys this year, in Chicago, I organized (with Daniele, Licia, and Jon) a workshop on personalization in mobile applications. This was the first time that I’ve played the role of organizer; it was certainly a fun and interesting role to play.

The original workshop proposal named our event PUMA: Personalization in Urban and Mobile Applications. Why? Well, for one, most of the research we have been involved in recently has centred around cities. Of course, that would also let us call the workshop PUMA (grrr!). Unfortunately, the reviewers thought that this would limit our audience too much (I agree; they are probably right), so we became PeMA.

Based on the submissions that we accepted, we decided to have 3 sessions: (a) crowd-sourcing and recommendation, (b) privacy on the move, and (c) sensing & recommending. Each session would have 2 papers (which are all online) and 1 invited speaker.

One of our biggest priorities was to try and design a non mini-conference kind of workshop. That meant that there were no rows of chairs; we all sat in a big circle. It meant that we began the workshop by having participants introduce their neighbour to the entire workshop, after a few minutes chatting. It also meant that we allocated 10 minutes for each paper’s presentation, with 5 minutes of discussion.

Some people have mixed feelings about this last point (short presentations). They really want to tell you as much as they can about their work. Of course, that’s what happens during a conference, where session (not coffee break!) interactivity is diminished to the infamous post-presentation question time. However, a great middle ground exists: in his CARS workshop keynote, Xavier (who had plenty of time to talk at us) chose to foster interaction by rewarding people with a Netflix USB stick if they asked him a question. Guess who had his hand up first? That’s right, me. And everyone else. The keynote was very interactive!

The last thing that we planned was a form of structured brainstorming: workshop participants were given different coloured post-its, and were given the task to write down ideas/thoughts/links after each presentation. Think of it as (somehow) taking the twitter back-channel and turning it into something that you can touch. Each session therefore produced a cluster of ideas:

At first, we were a bit unsure as to how much people would be interested in doing this. To our surprise, by the third session we started to run out of post-its! The fourth (and last) session of the day was dedicated to consolidating these ideas. Speakers were automatically grouped according to their session, and everyone else was free to join any group they liked. Each group was then given the task to (a) put their ideas together, (b) find the people who had posted ideas to their group and talk to them, and (c) see how many links and opportunities they could find with other people. At the end, each group came back together and was tasked with coming up with a 1-slide idea to be presented during a minute madness session. At stake: some booze. Lucky for us all, the winners kindly shared their earnings with everyone (at least, those of us left):

As a side note, we did put on the web site that we would be doing this, and I got a lot of questions about it in the run-up to the workshop. Unfortunately, it seems that (in few cases), this turned people away from the workshop. In other cases, people showed up to the workshop just for that session since they were curious; the unfortunate aspect of that being that it is difficult to participate if you have not been there the rest of the day!

One last thing: we asked participants for feedback (via an online form). We got a total of 13 responses:

Questions about the workshop papers:

Questions about the invited speakers:

Questions about the post-it brainstorming:

It seems, as we expected, that the brainstorming drew the most mixed feelings from participants. The (clear?) winners are short presentations and the quality of the talks by speakers that we invited. The free text responses asked for a demo session, a LinkedIn-link (here it is!) and for more structure to the madness sessions (a difficult balance to strike!). Of course, the nicest feedback appeared in one of the post-its:

Overall, a great experience.

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