I have no experience with, and presently no plans for, running or organizing a grassroots knowledge-sharing conference. But if I did run one, and I could shape it exactly as I wanted, this might be what it would look like. Please be advised that I have no idea what I am talking about.

Let’s talk about Nonexisticon, the non-existent conference. Just to benefit your reading flow, dear reader, I am using the indicative rather than the subjunctive mood, in other words, I use phrases like “Nonexisticon is” as opposed to “Nonexisticon would be1. I trust that you are not confused by this, as the name very clearly implies that the conference does not exist.

Unifying Theme

Nonexisticon’s theme is freely shared knowledge work. Nonexisticon brings together open-data researchers, open-source software and hardware engineers and designers, Creative Commoners, documentarians, writers, artists, educators. Basically, if you create something with your mind and you make your creation freely available for anyone to use, enhance, modify and build upon, you’re welcome at Nonexisticon.

Nonexisticon is also a mutually supportive conference, where corporate-funded or financially secure attendees can commit to supporting less-privileged ones.

Location and Reach

Nonexisticon is a regional conference. “Region” in this context means an area from which the conference attendees can reasonably travel to the conference location, using environmentally friendly transportation modes (such as high-speed rail). Attendance from outside the region is welcome, but for environmental reasons it is not encouraged.

Nonexisticon is typically held on a university campus, or other suitable facility, in a location well accessible by public transportation. Cheap accommodation is typically available on-campus.

Supporting Organization

Nonexisticon is organized by the Nonexisticon Association, a not-for-profit organization that allows only individual, not corporate membership. The organization is staffed by volunteers, that is to say, while it is authorized to reimburse members of the conference team for expenses incurred and income lost as a direct result of conference work, it does not pay salaries to its staff.

Nonexisticon registration includes membership in this organization, with full voting rights, for a period of two years.

Recurrence and Length

Any regional Nonexisticon has its own recurrence schedule, but the conference is never held in the same region more than once per year.

Each Nonexisticon has a general theme. Themes can be quite diverse and are generally broadly defined, so as to attract individuals from many disciplines and backgrounds (as long as they relate to the unifying theme of freely shared knowledge work). Examples for conference themes are “cancer research”, “the Python programming language”, “high-energy physics”, or “the arts in education.”

Conference Committee

Nonexisticon is run by a Conference Committee, which is a group of 5 individuals headed by a Conference Director. The Conference Committee serves for the run-up, duration, and wind-down of one Nonexisticon, oversees the appointment of the succeeding Committee, and acts as advisors to the incoming Committee.

Would-be Conference Committees prepare a bid for the next Nonexisticon. Bids specify the conference location, dates, venue, capacity, theme, proposed sponsorship opportunities, and budget. If a bid is uncontested, the prior Conference Committee merely assesses the bid for plausibility and compliance with formal criteria, and accepts the bid (thereby also appointing the new Conference Committee). If more than one bid exists, the outgoing Conference Committee organizes an on-line vote among the Association membership, using a preferential voting system. The winning bid then results in the appointment of the new Conference Committee.

Presentations

Nonexisticon is a single-track conference, with one presentation slot length available: 30 minutes. Nonexisticon typically runs over the course of three days, with talks scheduled between 09:00 (9am) and 18:00 (6pm) local time.

This means that after deducting conference opening and closing remarks, keynotes, and breaks, Nonexisticon has 38 talks2 in total.

Q&A time is at the speaker’s discretion; forgoing Q&A entirely is acceptable.

All presentations are open for rating by attendees for a short time period of 5 minutes prior to, and 15 minutes after scheduled conclusion.

Presentations are recorded by a professional A/V team, and publicly released under a permissive license.

Presentation Proposals

Nonexisticon uses an anonymized call for proposals (CFP), conducted online, using an open-source conference platform. The Conference Committee defines the format of the CFP proper, including the questions posed at submitters. The Conference Committee reviews all submitted proposals, anonymized, for formal compliance with the CFP only.

Nonexisticon attendance requires the submission of a presentation proposal. Thus, conference registration and presentation submission are one and the same process. The conference registration fee must be paid in full at the time of registration/submission.

Nonexisticon limits proposals to one per speaker/attendee. All presentations are solo; multi-presenter talks and panel discussions are not permitted.3

Underprivileged Attendee Fund

Prospective attendees unable to accommodate the registration fee, conference travel, or accommodation may apply, upon registration, to the Underprivileged Attendee Fund.4 If accepted (per decision by the Conference Committee), the speaker/attendee is invited to attend the conference free of charge, and their submitted presentation is included in proposal review.

The Underprivileged Attendee Fund is endowed by

  • corporate conference sponsorship,
  • donations to the Nonexisticon Association,
  • profits carried over from prior conferences,
  • donations from regular speaker-attendees who voluntarily put up double the regular application fee upon their own registration/proposal submission.

Review process and talk selection

Talks are selected by all attendees/speakers during a time-limited selection period using a modified Borda count (MBC) ranking process, as pioneered by the scientific community for allocating observation time on astronomical telescopes.

In a nutshell, every attendee is assigned a small, randomly selected set of proposals (about 10, and excluding their own submission) to review. They then rank these submissions not in an order of subjectively “best” to “worst”, but from most beneficial to the overall attendee community to least beneficial to the overall attendee community. This results in an overall preliminary ranking of submissions, which is then compared to each attendee’s individual ranking. A high degree of agreement of an individual attendee’s ranking with the overall preliminary tally results in additional points for the attendee’s own proposal; the contrary, in subtracted points. Ultimately, this produces a final, definitive ranking of all received proposals.5

The entire ranking process is automated using open-source software, and both the preliminary and the final ranking result are publicized to all attendees/submitters.

The submitters of the 48 top-ranked presentations (38 plus 10 backup/waitlist presentations) are refunded their registration fee upon acceptance.

If an accepted speaker needs to withdraw their talk, the next-ranked talk automatically moves up, and the speaker’s registration is simultaneously canceled.6

Budget and Sponsoring

Nonexisticon’s budget calls for a barebones conference (infrastructure only, no catering, no childcare) to break even solely on registration fees equivalent to two-thirds of the venue capacity. In case of registrations being in excess of this threshold, Nonexisticon funds childcare, refreshments, and catered lunch, in that order.7

Nonexisticon is open to sponsoring. Sponsoring, however, does not buy presentation slots, nor does it have any bearing on keynote selection. Sponsors can choose to contribute to infrastructure, catering, childcare, the Underprivileged Attendee Fund, and social events. Of these, social events are the only category open exclusively to sponsor funding; Nonexisticon does not spend registration fee revenue on social events.

If registrations do not meet the two-thirds threshold, and the budget shortfall cannot be compensated by sponsor contributions or profits carried over from prior conferences, the conference is cancelled and registration fees refunded.

Keynotes

Nonexisticon has one keynote, which opens the conference. The Conference Committee extends the keynote speaker invitation by consensus.

The closing “keynote” is a reprise of the highest-rated presentation in the conference.

Conference run-up timeline

Nonexisticon’s attendee-visible run-up cycle is 6 months.

Assuming a Nonexisticon is scheduled to run from May 15-17, the following schedule applies:

Date Time to conference Event
Nov 15 6 months Conference Committee appointed. Date, location, and sponsorship opportunities announced.
Dec 15 5 months Registration period / CFP commences.
Jan 15 4 months Registration period / CFP ends, also first sponsorship commitment deadline.
Jan 22 3 months, 3 weeks Conference go/no-go call, based on registration and committed sponsorship.
Jan 29 3 months, 2 weeks Deadline for rejection of submissions, by the conference committee, on formal grounds. Final decision on Underprivileged Attendee Fund applications. First stage of submission review process (anonymized free-form comments on talk submissions) commences.
Feb 15 3 months First stage of submission review process ends, second stage (randomized-subset review and ranking) commences.
Mar 1 2 months, 2 weeks Second stage of review ends, final ranking available. Selected speakers for rank 1-38 in final ranking receive notification of acceptance, as do speakers with submissions ranked 39-48 for waitlist/backup talks.
Mar 15 2 months Final conference schedule published. Second and final deadline for sponsorships.

Disclaimer and acknowledgments

I’d like to reiterate that I have no experience whatsoever in running or putting on a conference, since the only time I’ve contributed to them as something other than a mere speaker, I’ve sat on proposal selection committees. So take all of what I wrote above with a mountain of salt, and consider it nothing more than semi-elaborate handwaving full of glaring omissions. But if you do want to give me some feedback, even it is simply telling me why my ideas are nuts — as opposed to just that they are — I’d be most grateful. Find me on Twitter or Mastodon.

That said, thanks to Tom Eastman for prompting me to put this in writing, to Professor Mike Merrifield for introducing me to the MBC approach, and to Brady Haran for making the Numberphile YouTube channel where I learned about it.


  1. Dear grammar stickler, I am acutely aware that a phrase including would + infinitive is not a true subjunctive mood, but the use of a modal verb. Feel free to replace all such instances with a true subjunctive in your head. 

  2. Don’t bother to check the talk arithmetic. It doesn’t matter whether it’s really 36 talks or 41 or 42. I just picked 38 as a reasonable, concrete number to work with. 

  3. Disallowing multiple submissions from one person, and presentations with multiple speakers, is a necessary consequence of the talk selection process. Allowing only one submission per submitter also has the added benefit that prospective speakers can focus on one single talk and give the proposal their very best shot. 

  4. Is there a better name for this? 

  5. If you find this summary insufficient to explain the process but also don’t feel like plowing through the paper, here’s a video explanation, plus additional information

  6. It is admittedly harsh to only be able to pull out of an accepted talk by pulling out of the conference altogether. I consider this a necessary evil to ensure that no attendee/submitter submit their proposal without genuine intent to present. 

  7. Of these, I am most on the fence about childcare. Meaning it would probably be a good idea to always budget for child-care cost, even if that means a higher registration fee for everyone, and thus a slightly elevated risk of conference cancellation.