I’ve always had an excitable, yet tentative outlook on academic conferences. Most conferences that I’ve attended over the past year and a half of my Masters in CompSci have represented (as they should) an opportunity to think outside of the box, to understand how other researchers are solving problems, to network with like-minded individuals and to share research which could have a positive impact on the respective field. After attending a conference that has met these goals, I consistently end up leaving with, what I like to call, an after-conference glow, that leaves me feeling re-energized in my research; more curious, more productive, more insightful, and more willing to work and share with other researchers. For those of you that have experienced this academic bliss, you know that it’s a feeling worth striving for. That being said, not all conferences that I’ve been to, have impacted me in this way which is why I try to be prepared and excited for conferences, but never too expectant.

That is exactly what was going through my mind as my advisor Dr. Dan Gillis and I loaded our bags onto our flight towards the People, Places and Public Engagement Conference in St. Johns in October of 2018. The focus of the conference was on exploring how universities and the public, including communities, governments, industry, not-for-profits, and others, collaborate, and work together. We had applied to speak at the conference months earlier, through the recommendation of one of our research partners who noted that it might be a good opportunity to share our research and network with individuals who were doing work related to Public Engagement in the region. Without delving too much into our own research project (for more info visit: enuk.ca), we are in the process of building an environment and health monitoring application, built with a mesh network for the remote, indigenous community of Rigolet in Nunatsiavut. While Dan and I are more involved on the ‘technical’ side, the project lies at the intersection of a multitude of fields, including; Computer Science, Public Health, Environmental Sciences, Public Engagement, Indigenous Studies and many more. While having experts in each of these fields is a necessity, it’s also necessary to identify a common means of communication within the team, and to work to understand how Computer Science fits within each of these domains in the context of our project. After identifying the conference as a good fit, and receiving our acceptance to present, we were able to garner enough funding through PSEER to cover my 5 days in St. Johns.

We arrived at our hotel with just enough time to unpack our bags and head up to Memorial Universities new building on Signal Hill for the ‘Welcome Social’ event. As we joined the queue for registration, I began to take in my surroundings, noting evidence which might support my hopes that this was indeed going to be one of the good ones. The building was fairly small; with one large conference room, a number of smaller meeting rooms, and an atrium that was full of smiles, deep conversation, a local band, and the aroma of local and traditional delicacies. By the end of the evening, Dan and I began walking back to our Hotel; our bellies satisfied, our heads full of excitement for the upcoming presentations, and pockets full of business cards and numbers from other researchers and our faces strained from smiling. It was going to be one of the good ones.

We arrived at the conference centre by 9:30 AM on Thursday Morning, just in time to grab some coffee, meet with our community research partner Inez Shiwak and chat with some individuals we met the previous night, before the plenary panel began. Ted Hewitt, Sara Woods, and Kevin Morgan began the conference by setting the stage for the next couple of days, identifying the importance of public engagement, discussing the role of communities, businesses, and academic institutions and addressing the many challenges. To my surprise, this plenary, the closing presentations and a couple luncheon plenaries would be the only presentations we attended in the larger conference hall throughout the week. The next 48 hours was a non-stop race against time, it was clear that the conversations that were to happen within these walls was of grave importance to our research and to the livelihoods of Canadians, and every passing moment was an opportunity to learn from someone new. Inez, Dan and I even opted to split up for a few of the workshops, taking notes and reconvening to share what we had learned. I decided that, while every presentation was valuable, I was going to focus on Arctic, Inuit, Community-based engagement, as well as projects that included some technical aspects, which I then narrowed down to the following presentations and workshops:

  • Advancing Public Engagement in Canada
  • Transforming University-Indigenous Relationships for Reconciliation
  • Creating Meaningful Curricular Learning Experiences with Public Engagement
  • Engagement and Network Leadership for Arctic Development
  • Right in the Middle of Somewhere: Public Engagement in Northern and Remote Regions
  • Engaging the Public Through Citizen Science
  • Closing Plenary - President Natan Obed, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK)

Dan, Inez and I each present in separate workshops, on different aspects of our project. Dan discussed “How Community Engaged Computer Science Can Change The World”, Inez explored the importance of Community Leadership in the design and implementation of the eNuk App and I explored “How Bridging the Digital Divide can Improve Community-Based Monitoring Programs in the Circumpolar North”. Within each of these sessions, we had a brief presentation before the room erupted into questions and discussions. Questions varied from supportive, such as “Could this research easily be extended to other communities, to more critical (yet incredibly important) questions such as “Have you considered the potential negative impacts of bringing high-speed internet to remote communities”. But this balance was exactly what we needed and exactly what we got; critical insight from a variety of parties on the best way of approaching Public Engagement. This balance of criticisms and support from active and diverse attendees was a theme that persisted through the entire conference. Each presentation involved active participation from the audience and presenters in the discussion of the importance of public engagement, community-engaged learning and scholarship, and our role in addressing the many challenges currently faced in society. Natan Obed, president of the ITK, summed up the week perfectly with his closing statement; “We have determined that it must end with us. Now, we must follow through on the actions we have agreed to undertake together and make them a priority in every aspect of our work and our lives.”

While I could ramble on about the PPP, and there are some key takeaways that have stuck with me since leaving St. Johns;

  1. The benefit of a conference can be described as the sum of passion and knowledge it provided to its attendees, not its cost, location or the fame of its presenters.
  2. If you’re asking “How do I get community members involved in my research”, you’re too late, they need to be involved in the design and planning of the research as well.
  3. Don’t be defensive of your research
  4. Practise a healthy amount of skepticism
  5. Go to conferences and most importantly
  6. There are many types of knowledge, and each one deserves to be equally recognized.
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