Just about the most fun you can have getting paid

@geoffbrown3231 story boarding our #wihc2012

SItting here with Geoff Brown and Steven Wright at the World Indigenous Housing Conference here in Vancouver.  We are on the back end of what has been a terrific gig.

We were hired by the Aboriginal Housing Management Association of BC to facilitate dialogue at this 800 person international gathering.  The sponsor made dialogue a clear priority and after talking about intentions, we arrived on the design of three World Cafes: one in the plenary with everyone present and two in more focused breakout sessions.  The first cafe would look at stories of success, the second would think about how to build capacity to support success and the third was focused on institutional development.  each one built on the last.

The theme of the conference was “Sharing our Stories, Sharing our Successes.”  With that theme to play with, we knew the cafes needed to be about connecting people and ensuring that stories were central to the work.  Our first challenge was to think about how to harvest stories and connections quickly from 800 people.  We looked at several tech solutions and realized that we needed something simple, unobtrusive and accessible.  The ubiquitous tool at hand was the text equipped smart phone.  Almost everyone has one, and almost everyone can text.  Our basic problem was first how to gather text messages and second how to make meaning from them quickly.  Geoff, Steven and I were familiar with Wordle.net which makes a word cloud out of blocks of text, and which I have used in the past to get a visual and intuitive sense of what concepts and words are weighted highly.

So our question became, how can we combine smart phones, text messages and wordle?

Through our networks we found Luke Closs, a local developer/hackerwho put together a simple solution that he called “Text to Cloud.”  At the back end he connected Twillio to world using an interface that we could control with commands sent by text message.  groups of texts that come in can be tagged and sorted and then sent straight to Wordle for processing.  We also enabled the software to produce a CSV output that we can use for other purposes.  Luke was great, developing the tool right up to the moment that his daughter was born on Tuesday.  Of course, the tool is open source and you can find it on Github, download and install it and use it for yourself.

Armed with Text to Cloud, we began our first cafe by inviting people to text in the name of their tribe of origin.  We created an instant wordle that showed who was in the room.  That immediately connected people together (and showed we were blessed with Crees!)./  Following that we had people enter into the cafe to start telling stories of successes with listeners paying attention to the factors that made those successes possible.  People gathered information on tablecloths and texted in wisdom and insights and by the end of the cafe we had 438 text messages to make meaning from.  We had a half hour to do something with all this.

So we sent it all to Wordle and discovered a theme: Building Homes, Building Communities and Building Nations.  There were six key areas we needed to think about for capacity building: governance, building, partnerships, community, education and ownership.  Steven whipped up a digital mind map which we projected on our screens.  We invited people at each table to choose one of the topics and dive into stories of capacity building.  In our third cafe, we thought about how institutions can support sustained capacity building.

By the end of the day we were soaking in flip chart paper, but we had some great high level meaning through the Text to Cloud output, the wordles and the developmental nature of the conversation.  We retreated to Steven’s room and started trying to figure out how to share what we had learned.  We realized early on that there was absolute gold on the flip charts, so we decided to create a presentation that combined what Geoff calls “vox pops” – short pithy and insightful comments – along with longer stories.  While Steven created a map to chart the highlights, Geoff and I prepared a slideshow that touches on the headlines.  Our plan this afternoon is to call the storytellers up to the stage to share their stories with the audience.  They are the true key notes.

This gig has been fun.  Our client has been fantastic, we’ve created new tools, connected people doing important work, pushed our own edges and done stuff we’ve never done before, and that we could never have done alone.  It was a superb co-creative experience and a great way to spend time with good friends.






  1. Good work, Chris! I love following what you do. Keep on keeping on.

    Tom (Dartmoor, UK)

  2. Thanks for sharing the process you used to gather participant inputs and feed it back to them in ways that that make them co-learners and partners in community building. This is a clear example how technology becomes an enabling mechanism.

  3. This is soo flippin cool! I’d love to see the text to cloud images if possible. Thanks for sharing!

  4. What a great idea! I love your use of technology, that you developed a tool for your purposes, and how you used this tool.I can imagine using this tool to bring groups together, to find common threads – even in large audiences. I think it would be very powerful produce live word clouds during a presentation, strategic planning session, etc. I went to the links you provided and I am not clear about downloading the tool and using it.
    I think you are really on to something.

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