For those who can’t travel to Tampa for General Conference 2012, technology is offering United Methodists an array of ways to connect—by way of smartphones, iPads and computers—and to join in the worldwide conversation as decisions are considered and made.
For those delegates and visitors inside the Tampa Convention Center, however, getting access to the Internet has been more problematic. When the pre-conference briefing met there in January, attendees discovered that the convention center was not equipped with Wi-Fi.
In response to those concerns, planning team members opted to have an outside vendor install a temporary, fee-based system.
“We put in a Wi-Fi system that gives coverage in the plenary space and limited access in other parts of the convention center,” said the Rev. Alan Morrison, business manager of the General Conference and director of support services for the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). Users will pay $50 to Wi-Fi for the entire length of the General Conference.
The installed Wi-Fi network was a fairly last-minute solution, given the challenges faced by organizers in planning and budgeting for General Conference in a technological environment that has undergone vast changes just in the last four years, since the last General Conference met in Fort Worth, Texas.
In 2008, Apple’s iPad was still two years away. The iPhone had been on the market less than a year, and relatively few people relied on cellphones to check email or access the Internet. The percentage of people in the U.S. who use iPhones and other smartphones has since exploded—from 18 percent in late 2009 to 44 percent as of October 2011. And 4G phones—notorious data hogs—were only a glint in Steve Jobs’ eye.
Wireless internet connections were available, but not ubiquitous, in 2008. All of the official systems used for General Conference were “hard-wired,” rather than Wi-Fi based, and that was the focus when planning began seven years ago.
“When the site selection process was done in 2005, the need for Wi-Fi was not high on the priority list for any event,” Mr. Morrison said. “Many convention centers did not have it available or only had it available in a limited area of their building.”
United Methodist Communications’ technical team considered a variety of options and potential vendors to find a cost effective way to provide Wi-Fi access. The cost for adding a Wi-Fi system was estimated at around $40,000 to $50,000—given the number of people expected at the Convention Center. Fees paid by subscribers should help offset that cost.
The prospect of doing without Wi-Fi did not sit well with many delegates, including the Rev. Bradley Laurvick, associate minister at St. Luke’s UMC in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and a Rocky Mountain Conference delegate.
He spoke out at the pre-Conference briefing in Tampa in January, where he planned to use social media to communicate with folks who couldn’t be there, adding that he’d be “very disappointed” if that were not possible at General Conference.
“I’m a digital native,” said Mr. Laurvick, age 30. “It’s one of my primary modes of connection with my peers, with community, with my parishioners. And so, this is how I plan to be connected with them. I would hope the church would find ways to facilitate that.”
“We spent half the day hearing how we want to focus on younger people and engaging young leadership,” he added. “This is how you engage me.”
General Conference organizers, however, were stymied by the fact that convention centers are government-owned and, unlike for-profit businesses like hotels, don’t have the ability to quickly implement technological upgrades. The Tampa Convention Center has a three-year plan to implement Wi-Fi throughout the building, which is just starting, and “that won’t do us any good,” Mr. Morrison said.
There’s an app
At the pre-Conference briefing for delegates from Africa in Harare, Zimbabwe in February, the Rev. Larry Hollon noticed that virtually every person present had a cellphone—another sign of how the world has changed since 2008.
“Today, in the U.S., there are more mobile devices than there are people,” said Mr. Hollon, who is chief executive of United Methodist Communications (UMCOM).
UMCOM’s team is offering a mobile tool for following the event. General Conference 2012 apps for iPhone, Android and the iPad allow users to track legislation, access the conference schedule, find meeting locations and view maps of the convention center and Tampa area.
With 4,000 or more delegates and visitors in the Convention Center at any one time, cellphone access may be tested at times, too, but again, General Conference planners say their options are limited for boosting bandwidth.
“It will really depend on which wireless company people use and how close the towers are for that particular company,” Mr. Morrison said, who added that he’s used his cell phone in a number of different rooms in the Convention Center, without problems.
For those folks following General Conference from their computers and other devices, live video streaming is available. By logging on to www.gc2012.umc.org, virtual visitors can watch all of the plenary sessions as they happen, including the daily evening worship services. Website visitors may also track legislative petitions and get news and updates, and find daily news updates and photos from the conference.
With the website as well as the apps, visitors can use a search engine to find and follow legislation. Users will have five ways of locating a particular piece of legislation: using a petition number, keyword or the name of the person or organization submitting the petition, as well as by way of the legislative committee considering the petition or the reference number to the section of the Book of Discipline or Book of Resolutions to which the legislation relates.
The GC2012 website is also publishing the Daily Christian Advocate (the “DCA”), the official journal of the proceedings of General Conference, every morning in PDF format. Delegates will receive paper copies on their desks each morning of the conference.
All of these technological options should make the General Conference more accessible and easier to follow. But the real game-changing technology at this General Conference, Mr. Hollon believes, will be social media.
“Facebook and Twitter were not even factors at General Conference 2008, but today they are major sources of information and conversation,” said Mr. Hollon.
About 750 million people currently use Facebook, up from 100 million in 2008. UMCOM has created a General Conference Facebook page as well as a Twitter feed (#GC2012) which will be updated frequently during the conference.
Instead of hearing the results of General Conference days or even weeks after the fact, church members can follow and discuss legislation, within their own networks, as it is considered and voted upon. Followers of the Twitter feed can opt to “retweet” posts about developments at General Conference, and Facebook users may share and comment on posts from the GC2012 Facebook page.
And individual delegates can post their own updates, as well, as Mr. Laurvick did at the pre-Conference briefing in Tampa.
“I’ve got folks who aren’t delegates in any way, shape or form, asking questions and feeling like they’re a part of the pre-Conference briefing because I can let them know what’s going on and things that are being said,” he said. He’s doing the same at General Conference.
“I think [social media] will be a significant new factor in the whole conversation leading up to and during the General Conference, not only because it’s a growing area in media, but also because the conversation takes place in real time and it’s uncontrolled,” Mr. Hollon said.