Local Chapters/Tips And Guidance

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Tips and Guidance on Starting a Local Chapter

I solicited guidance and tips about how to go about starting a local chapter or users group and found the following response from Michal Gerlek (MPG) very helpful...

Don’t worry about the formalities: just find a few people who will regularly attend and talk about cool stuff, and then let things organically grow form there. It may take time, but be patient. Remember, a cool group of five people sitting around chatting for an hour is perfectly fine: you don’t need to have a fancy venue, dozens of people, or Big Name speakers.

CUGOS (www.cugos.org) has been around for 7(!) years now, with monthly attendance averaging 20-30 people (we hit a record 53 last week). Just off the top of my head, some of the things we’ve learned over the years:

  • Try to find a place you can meet regularly, rather than switching venues all the time – initially, just a conference room at a local library or university is fine. Or perhaps one of your core attendees has a company meeting room available after hours.
  • Try to connect with your local college or university. Seniors and grad students can present projects they’re working on. Students looking to graduate soon need to network, find skills they’re missing, etc.
  • Don’t overly restrict yourself to "Open Source GIS". If you get a chance to host a good talk on some new GIS app or technology outside the open source realm, or a cool new open source thing outside of GIS, go for it. If a local GIS company wants to pitch their services, why not?
  • Get a mailing list going – you’re likely to reach 10x the number of people on a list over in-person meetings. In fact, consider just starting with a mailing list, letting it grow for a while, and then hold your first face-to-face meeting once you’ve got some traction.
  • Food always helps. Pass around a hat for donations and you’ll almost certainly wind up with a bit of profit from the evening you can use to seed the next meeting.
  • Going out for beers afterwards also helps. We get probably get 1/4 or 1/3 of our attendees socializing at a local bar for an hour or two after our the actual meeting itself. (We’ve reached the point where we need to give the bar a heads-up call in advance so they’re prepared for 10-20 people to walk in all at once and ask for a table.)
  • When you get a critical mass, hold outreach events: it’s a public service first, and as a side-benefit it will promote your group to others who may be interested. Every year CUGOS holds an all-day event on the campus of UW that attracts a lot of attention. Some of our members also volunteer their services for various events like career fairs, mapping parties, GIS Day at local schools, training, informal workshops and sprints, etc.

Good luck!