Liveblogging Responsive Conf

Orde Saunders' avatarby Orde Saunders

I'm used to taking notes from talks but covering 13 talks during one day at Responsive Conf was a challenge. This is how I managed to get it all done before leaving the venue.

Hardware

The biggest challenge for covering a full day of talks is managing battery life, second is internet connection.

Liveblogging kit

Asus Tansformer

This is a 10" Android tablet that, vitally, has a keyboard dock containing a secondary battery. The keyboard is essential as I touch type and the keyboard on the Transfomer is easily good enough for me to reliably type fast enough to keep up with speakers - even when they are delivering a fast stream of conciousness like Graeme Obree. The additional battery in the dock means that it will last all day, especially with the screen back light down to minimum, airplane mode on and the Tegra processor switched into power save mode. It also doesn't run hot like a laptop which, when you're sitting in a conference all day with it on your lap, is a very important consideration.

MiFi

A MiFi is an excellent investment, whilst you can use most modern smart phones as 3G-to-WiFi hotspots I like the MiFi as it has it's own battery and, as an added bonus, it is on a different network to my phone so it increases the chances of getting a good signal.

Laptop

I have a 13" MacBook Air running Kubuntu which gives me a full windowed desktop environment which is easier to work with when it comes to transferring data between different places as we'll see later. I have this fully charged at the start of the day before I leave for the venue and make sure I've got browser windows open with logged in sessions to my blog posting admin page, Evernote and Twitter before closing the lid to put it in standby.

External battery

The final piece of essential kit for me is an external battery pack, this provides a 5V USB charger which can be used to top-up charge the MiFi, tablet or my phone - essential when travelling.

Software

Markdown

I write all my blog posts in Markdown, it takes care of the basic parts of HTML - headings, paragraphs, lists etc. - whilst still allowing me to add in full HTML markup when needed. For notes from talks I normally stick to things that can be expressed in pure markdown.

Evernote

I use Evernote for taking notes as the Android client on the Transformer is very easy to use and, once synced, the notes are available on any of my devices.

Taking notes

This is much more of an art than a science so it's hard to offer any hard and fast advice - the main thing is to just do it. Some lessons I have learned from taking notes are:

  • Take notes on every talk you go to, it's much easier when it's a habit.
  • Go to lots of talks, it's much easier when you have practice.
  • Don't worry about following a particular style as every speaker is different, just make notes and see what structure starts emerging in the first third of the talk and build on that.
  • Don't worry if you think you've missed something, it's imperative you keep up with the speaker. (Better never than late.)
  • Don't worry about typos, fix them afterwards.
  • Don't edit during the talk, save that until afterwards and then it shouldn't be much more than spelling corrections.
  • Make sure your focus is on what the talk is about - not your note taking.

I find taking notes is a good exercise in midnfullness, I have to be completely in the moment and free of distractions.

The Golden Rule

Save early, save often. There's nothing worse than losing all your notes due to a crash or (more likely) getting a sudden attack of fat fingers and wiping it.

Posting notes

Once the talk is over and notes are spell checked I fire up the MiFi and take the Transformer out of airplane mode so it connects. Once connected I sync Evernote and put the Transformer away. I get out the laptop and open the lid to wake it. Once it's connected to the MiFi Evernote normally needs a refresh to pick up the new notes.

I create a new post in the blog admin and fill in the title, and the date and time the talk started (this is a bit anal but I get it from the note creation time in Evernote so it's free meta data).

I copy and paste my standard talk blog post introduction from another talk and change the name of the speaker and the topic of the talk - I normally link to the speaker's web and twitter pages as well as the conference website as an SEO courtesy but as there were so many talks in such a short space of time at Responsive Conf I left this step out.

The markdown formatted notes are then copied from Evernote and into the body of the post before publishing as a draft. I then very quickly skim review this draft in-situ on my site to check for obvious clangers and broken links before removing the draft flag.

The notes are now a public internet on the series of tubes. I switch to a second browser which is not logged in to my blog admin just to check that it's showing correctly to anonymous users as caching is disabled and drafts are visible when I'm logged in to the admin.

I then copy the link and head over to Twitter to post the link with the conference hashtag and, normally, the speaker's twitter handle. Again, due to time constraints imposed by the format of Responsive Conf, I didn't do this as I was posting notes for all the talks from each session in the breaks between sessions.

Finally I close the laptop to hibernate it again, turn the MiFi off and put the Transformer back into airplane mode and I'm done. Normally I can get this done in the time it takes speakers to change over on stage and I'm ready for the next speaker before they start. It's important to me to get the talks posted immediately as I'm not then distracted during the next talk thinking about what I've still not done from the previous talk.

Why do I do it?

I find that taking notes really helps me get more out of talks, even after a couple of weeks I find I remember something from a talk but not quite get the details so I'll go back to my notes and, not only do I get what's in the notes, I recall other details from the time.