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Using MIT’s Unhangout to Host a Virtual Barcamp or Open Space

June 29, 2020

TL; DR: Results of a Test of Using Unhangout to Host Virtual Barcamps

Last week, 30-plus attendees of the 24th Hands-on Agile meetup ran a virtual Barcamp experiment w/ MIT’s Unhangout, an open-source platform for organizing attendee-driven virtual open space events.

Read on and learn whether Unhangout is a suitable solution to remote collaboration challenges.

Using Unhangout to Host a Virtual Barcamp or Open Space — Hands-on Agile #24

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Open Space Technology

BarCamps, unconferences — we know open space events under different labels. They have become very popular in the last years, either organized by an independent community or within organizations:

When people must tackle a common complex challenge, you can release their inherent creativity and leadership as well as their capacity to self-organize. Open Space makes it possible to include everybody in constructing agendas and addressing issues that are important to them. Having co-created the agenda and free to follow their passion, people will take responsibility very quickly for solving problems and moving into action. Letting go of central control (i.e., the agenda and assignments) and putting it in the hands of all the participants generates commitment, action, innovation, and follow-through. You can use Open Space with groups as large as a couple of thousand people!

SourceLiberating Structures: Open Space Technology.

How do open space events work in practice? The Agile Camp Berlin describes the magic of self-organization at work:

Usually, people who share a common interest meet and work on topics. Meaning: Everybody can present a session, even is encouraged to do so. If there’s a topic you want to present, discuss, try out or you just want to ask the community for help: the pitching session in the morning of the BarCamp gives you the opportunity to propose your topic. After the initial pitching of sessions, all proposed sessions will be mapped to the spots and rooms. After that, the law of the two feet will apply. Law of the two feet means: if you decide that a session might be valuable for you, you show this by attending it. Sometimes there’s the situation that there are more proposed sessions than slots. In that case, we vote collectively, and the most popular sessions get a slot.

SourceAgile Camp Berlin: What is Barcamp?

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Unhangout’s Promise

Unhangout promises to solve a problem we are facing if we consider Zoom to run a virtual Barcamp: How do we ensure that the law-of-two-feet still applies to a virtual Barcamp? By making everyone a co-host in Zoom? Probably, that is not the best idea in some situations. Alternatively, Manually assigning people to sessions in breakout rooms would not just create a massive administrative overhead. It would also introduce a dependency that might threaten what makes open space events so successful: autonomy, self-organization, and serendipity.

This is where Unhangout comes into play to help organize a virtual Barcamp:

Unhangout is an open-source platform for running large-scale, participant-driven events online. Each event has a landing page, which we call the lobby. When participants arrive, they can see who else is there and chat with each other. Hosts can welcome their community and do introductions in a video window that gets streamed into the lobby. Participants can then join breakouts, which are small group video chats, for in-depth conversations, peer-to-peer learning, and collaboration on projects.

SourceAbout Unhangout.

In other words: Unhangout’s unique value proposition is the free movement of attendees of the virtual Barcamp between breakout sessions. And we put it to the test.

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Lessons Learned from Using Unhangout to Host a Virtual Barcamp at the 24th Hands-on Agile Meetup

Unhangout’s Features — An Overview

Unhangout comprises of two main areas: a) the lobby of the event and b) the breakout room. The following screenshots were taken on an exploratory session.

Unhangout’s Lobby

Using Unhangout to Host a Virtual Barcamp or Open Space — Hands-on Agile #24

Unhangout’s lobby is the space where all participants of the virtual Barcamp meet:

  • On the left hand, there is a list of participants.
  • In the middle of the window, you find the chat area. (No video chat, though.)
  • On the right hand, there is the session planning area. (Here, we use the mode of participants to suggest breakout sessions.)

Unhangout’s Breakout Rooms

Unhangout’s lobby is the space where all participants of the virtual Barcamp meet: On the left hand, there is a list of participants. In the middle of the window, you find the chat area. (No video chat, though.) On the right hand, there is the session planning area. (Here, we use the mode of participants to suggest breakout sessions.) Unhangout’s Breakout Rooms

Unhangout’s breakout rooms are where the action happens. If you know Zoom or Google Meet, you will feel familiar with the functionality on offer:

  • You can share your screen, raise and lower your hands, and join the chat within the breakout session.
  • You control audio and video, muting, and removing people from the session.
  • Lastly, you can record sessions and share videos.
  • Additionally, there is a notepad that the attendees of a breakout session can use.

Unhangout’s Shortcomings

There are several shortcomings of Unhangout that come to mind regarding the organization of a larger virtual Barcamp:

  1. There is no video chat available in the lobby.
  2. The number of participants of breakout sessions is limited to ten; that’s hardly “supporting” the law-of-two-feet.”
  3. Consecutive sessions are not supported.
  4. There is little control over breakout sessions on the side of the admin.
  5. Live audio pitching of sessions before a vote is not supported.
  6. The note pad does not seem to be session-specific.

While we could not address the #2 and #3, we decided to remedy the lack of a video chat in the lobby by moving the lobby to Zoom. We hence used Zoom as a wrapper application for the virtual Barcamp: We started with the kick-off in Zoom, then moved to Unhangout for the session planning and the breakout sessions, and closed the event in the Zoom lobby. However, engaging Zoom for this purpose caused audio and webcam issues in some configuration—it was either Zoom or Unhangout, but not both at the same time.

The Script of the 24th Hands-on Agile Meetup

Organization-wise, we followed these subsequent steps—directly taken from the skript—to accomplish the test:

  1. Share the Unhangout link, share your Unhangout dashboard via Zoom: Please join Unhangout via the following link.
  2. a) Round 1: Adding breakout sessions: Please add your breakout session proposals by clicking the “plus” in the upper right corner. (3 min)
  3. b) Round 2: Introducing the breakout sessions: If you have suggested a breakout session, please introduce your session to the whole group via Zoom. ( We go down the list from top to bottom. It is one minute per pitch.)
  4. c) Round 3: Voting: If you haven’t yet voted in Unhangout, please do so now. You have one vote per proposal; clicking twice will remove your vote again.)
  5. Accept and open breakout sessions in Unhangout: I will now “open” the breakout sessions, and you can join your preferred one by clicking on it. (The breakout session will open in a new browser tab.) Please remember: A breakout session can host between 2 and 10 participants.
  6. Run the breakout sessions: Join your breakout session of choice; the sessions will last 30 minutes. Alternatively, stay in the lobby — our Zoom session — for a chat at the virtual coffee machine. Session hosts: decide on how to run your session. Please ask in advance for permission of the attendees if you intend to record your session.
  7. Close breakout sessions after 30 minutes: Please rejoin the whole group in Zoom to collect feedback and discuss the outcome.
  8. Rate the experience w/ Unhangout: How would you rate the experience with Unhangout? Please add your feedback to the Google slide deck. (5 min)
  9. Discussion: Let’s discuss the findings. (10 min)

The whole exercise with a short debriefing/retrospective took about 2.5 hours, including a break. The number of participants peaked about half an hour into our virtual strategy session. (38 out of 102 who RSVPed.)

A Virtual Barcamp w/ Unhangout: Discussion, Feedback, and Lessons Learned

These are the lessons learned from running a virtual Barcamp with Unhangout:

What Works Well in Unhangout

The following quotes regarding the positive sides of Unhangout are from the participants:

  1. Easy to use
  2. Jitsi was working fine for me
  3. Jitsi worked for me in this tool. (I had problems in the past.)
  4. Worked well for me, no issues with Jitsi
  5. Liked the overview of the sessions and the visibility of how many are in a session
  6. Easy to set up the market place
  7. Relative easy to use
  8. Quality communications with new people with similar interests.

What Needs Improvement in Unhangout

The following quotes regarding the negative sides of Unhangout are from the participants:

  1. Jitsi can sometimes be a problem
  2. First time joiners will have a hard time figuring everything out and will miss out on things → make new testing for everybody in advance
  3. Two video conference tools in parallel are hardware challenged
  4. Audio was awkward in the first minute in Unhangout session until everyone closed their Zoom window
  5. Need time to figure out how all things are working
  6. Look and feel is quite clumsy
  7. I didn’t get that I needed to close Zoom, after that it worked
  8. Difficult to maintain Zoom and another tool at the same time
  9. A few people I could not understand during the Unhangout session, but I don’t know why the audio was bad for them
  10. In retrospect, I would ask participants to “leave computer audio” in the Zoom call and stop their video before joining the Unhangout session. The echo and webcam blocked in another application was an issue for us.

Hosting a Virtual Barcamp w/ Unhangout — Conclusions

Does Unhangout support a virtual Barcamp organization, a remote unconference, and a distributed open space event? Yes, it does as long as the group is small; 30 people can be well supported, particularly if they already know each other. Otherwise, a different set-up may prove to be more useful. The idea of utilizing Zoom as a wrapper for Unhangout worked okayish for the majority of participants. However, there are configurations where Zoom and Unhangout are colliding in their respective attempt to gain control over microphones and webcams.

Have you hosted a virtual Barcamp in the past? If so, what set-up have you used? Please share it with us in the comments.

📅 Join the 25th Hands-on Agile meetup on August 20, 2020, to explore the virtual Ecocycle Planning:

Hands-on Agile #25: Virtual Ecocyle Planning with Mural

📺 Remote Agile: Practices and Tools [Replay of a Live Virtual Class]

At the end of March, we ran a Remote Agile Practices & Tools live virtual class with about 30 participants from all over Europe, the Eastern Seaboard, and Canada. The participants agreed on recording it and make it available to the agile community. We edited the recording slightly; for example, we removed the waiting time during the exercise timeboxes. Otherwise, the video accurately reflects how one way of collaborating with a distributed team using Zoom breakout rooms may work.

Except for three teaching blocks of about 20 minutes in total, the whole Remote Agile Practices & Tools class of 2:45 hours comprised of interactive work:

If you have any questions regarding the class, please let me know via the comments, or contact me in the Hands-on Agile Slack community.

If the video snippet does not play, please watch the video on Youtube: Remote Agile (1) Replay: Practices and Tools for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches, and Product Owners.

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Virtual Barcamps — Related Content

Agile Camp Berlin 2019 Video.

Hands-on Agile #23: Quo Vadis, Scrum Master: The Results of Our Virtual Strategy Session.

All posts on Liberating Structures.

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