What was the “Unconference”?

Photo of the notes from the arranging of the unconference stuck on a window

I’m going to invite controversy and say it was the best part of this year’s NHS R Community annual conference.

Not that the more traditional presentations in the main hall were not informative and interesting as ever.

Not that it wasn’t great to hear an array of brilliant and enthusiastic speakers – analysts, managers, academics – show how they are using R (and Python!) to solve real world problems with statistics, data science, evidence and coding.

Not that the new approach of inviting questions through Slack channels devoted to each of the talks didn’t lead to a lively interaction between audience and speakers.

But the Unconference embodied something else. Something that has been essential to the philosophy of the NHS R Community since its inception: the fact that NHS R is a community. Not a professional organisation. Not a cabal of experts who decant their wisdom to a group of acolytes. But a community built on participation – and on breaking down organisational boundaries and hierarchies.

So, what was it?

The brainchild of the hugely enthusiastic Dr Pawel Orzechowski from the University of Edinburgh, it was a simple idea to empower conference attendees.

In the morning of the first day of the conference, an ad hoc collage of snipped up conference timetables, oversized index cards, and sticky tape appeared on the window of the refreshments lounge.

During the course of the day people (most of them who had come along as ordinary conference attendees, who had arrived without pre-prepared PowerPoint presentations, who had not expected to be giving talks) quietly came forward* to post their own ideas for rival conference sessions against the more formal timetable for the main session (*some of them may have also received a bit of enthusiastic cajoling).

Scrawled in felt tip. Stuck to the wall with sticky tape. In some cases offering to lead sessions, in others making pleas for “someone who knows what they’re talking about!” to step up.

An alternative, crowd-sourced alternative to the main conference – the Unconference – emerged.

By the end of the first day the scrappy timetable glued to the pristine window of Edgbaston Cricket Ground conference lounge had been populated with a full day’s session. Pawel keenly handed anyone going into the room with green and gold stickers, encouraging them to stick and vote.

Around came day 2, and a new challenge.

Instead of walking into a room next to the main conference session as planned, it emerged Unconference attendees would have to engage in an epic (and confusing) odyssey down the back stairs, through the bowels of the stadium, and up into a different part of the building.

It was a bit confusing. But fired with enthusiasm to nerd out discussing statistics and modelling, debate the practicalities of professional registration, put heads together to understand how to better use Quarto to automate reporting, and a whole range of other topics, lively groups and thoughtful individuals made the trek back and forth throughout the day.

Unlike the main conference sessions these were active discussions. Crowded around the big round tables – at times pushing them together – participants leaned in to discuss, debate, disagree, challenge, and help each other grapple with things that mattered to them in their jobs, their careers, their professional community.

One high point for me was a nerd-out discussion on prediction intervals, bravely proposed and hosted by Simon Newey which involved lively discussions about the best error distributions to use when modelling hospital activity, the relative merits of classical vs Bayesian/simulation-based regression models, and the near-universal experience of stopping halfway through trying to build such a model to scratch your head and say “what does it all mean?”

Another was a discussion with NHS R Community founder and stalwart Prof Mohammed A Mohammed, about how we can move from lots of people independently working on the same problems – such as projecting/forecasting A&E attendance or hospital occupancy – again and again, and instead taking the best from all of those previous pieces of work and scaling them up collaboratively into sustainable approaches that the whole health and care system can use.

These were lively, disruptive (to use Prof Mohammed’s preferred phrase, in the tech innovation sense) sessions which brought together people from across the health and social care sector – hospital modellers, NHS England data scientists, civil servants, academics – and from across the career spectrum, from junior analysts through to senior (technical) managers and specialists, where their job roles, organisations and seniority were not mentioned. Only their ideas and their enthusiasm to use data and analytics to make the NHS – and the wider system – better for everyone.

This is the very spirit of the NHS R Community.

But it doesn’t end there!

If you’ve read this far, then we’ve got you. You have been co-opted.

Prof Mohammed wants you to tell him your ideas for how to solve this tricky problem of scaling our analytics into whole system solutions. Find out more in NHS-R Slack where you can also find Prof Mohammed.

Zoë Turner (Senior Data Scientist at The Strategy Unit and now coordinator for the NHS R Community) wants not just your ideas, but maybe even your membership of the NHS R Community Committee to shape its future. You can join those discussions at the NHS-R Slack, or get in touch with her directly at zoe.turner3@nhs.net.

In fact, the discussion did not stop at Edgbaston for any of the Unconference topics – they are all still live on the NHS-R Community #unconferencing-session-2023 Slack channel here, waiting for you to add your voice.

Ben Murch, Senior Analytics Manager NECS Consultancy and NHS R Community Senior Fellow