Spark Camp draws digital problem solvers to UT Austin's School of Journalism

  • By
  • January 19, 2012

Amy Webb didn’t have to look far for an example of how Spark Camp, an "un-conference" she helps organize, pulls disparate people together for an informal exchange of ideas and problem solving. Co-hosted by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americasand the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, Spark Camp attracted an impressive variety of talented people to spend three days in January — in Austin — to ruminate on the crossroads of data and online journalism.

Webb, affectionately called “the den mother” by her crew when she’s not the CEO of Webbmedia Group, glanced across the lobby of the Communications College at UT Austin to note four people sitting at a table chatting: Richard Gingras, the head of Google News; Mark Hansen, a professor of statistics at UCLA; Agnes Chang, a creative technologist for the Research and Development Lab at The New York Times; and Laura Kurgan, professor of architecture and director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University in New York. It was Jan. 15, a half-day Sunday after an all-day yeoman effort Saturday by the 91 "Campers". This gang of four Webb noticed were among the many groups of talkers. Chocolate was involved.

“The whole weekend, they’ve been solving problems,” Webb said confidently of the foursome, a comment that could cover virtually all of the Campers, some of whom were from Europe, plus two Knight Center special guests from Latin America, Jose Roberto de Toledo, from the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism (ABRAJI, by its initials in Portuguese), and Carlos Eduardo Huertas, from the Colombian journalists’ organization Consejo de Redaccion.

Spark Camp is what is called an “un-conference” because it is an unorthodox gathering, purposely so. The night before the two days of meetings, Campers gathered at an Austin hotel to pose with western-themed props before playing a math game while walking to a restaurant. The goal, Webb said, was to break down barriers, make people feel at ease and be ready to have fun.

Webb and her team — Andy Pergam, Amanda Michel, Matt Thompson, and Jenny Lee, supported by Webb's executive assistant Cheryl Cooney — go to great lengths to focus on 40 “smart people who have done important things” that they would like to see at the Camp. They then ask those folks, and some outside advisers, who else should attend. They also strive for a diverse mix of people. At the recent conference, 40 percent of attendees were people of color and 50 percent were women.

“We want the right mix of people,” Webb said. “Everyone here is on the top of their game.”

The participants settled on the topics to be discussed in the meetings, including such gems as: “Location-based app data wigs me out! How to leverage that data without being a creep?” And, “Is the death of the digital divide the birth of something new?”

The ultimate goal for Webb and her Spark Camp team is “focused conversations and we are aiming to solve problems,” she said.

This was the second Spark Camp. The first one was held at CUNY (City University of New York) last year, where the focus was on “real time” news. The founders will continue organizing other Spark Camps in different parts of the country and with different topics in mind, but the same un-conference style will prevail.