Running your unconference discussions effectively: AdaCamp session role cards

At the Ada Initiative’s AdaCamp unconferences, most of our sessions are participant organised and built around exploring or helping to solve an issue like mothers working in technology; the “likeability paradox” and similar issues. It’s easy for even participants with the best intentions to get off-topic, or to dominate the discussion at the expense of others.

Thus, we encourage the discussion groups at AdaCamp to watch out for unproductive derails, and to appoint four people in each group to different roles for the length of a session:

  1. a Facilitator, who presents the topic and keeps the discussion moving forwards
  2. a Gatekeeper, who keeps the discussion productive and empowers people who haven’t spoken up to make themselves heard
  3. a Timekeeper, who keeps the session to time
  4. a Note-taker, who makes notes on the session

To encourage groups to assign the four roles at the beginning of each session, we place four cards in each discussion space, to be handed to the volunteer for each role. If you’d like to use these at your conference, AdaCamper Barbara Hui, a software developer in the Access and Publishing Group at the California Digital Library, has prepared formatted versions of the cards that you can edit and print for your own event. Thank you Barbara!

Download the formatted cards: OpenOffice document, PDF

The text of the cards is:


  • Your job is to present the topic and keep the session moving forward
  • Attempt to be neutral and fair as you guide the session
  • If you want to be a major participant in the discussion, hand off your facilitator duties to another person
  • If you have any time guidelines, give them to the timekeeper
  • Pay attention to people’s emotions and signals and respond to them


  • Your job is to keep the discussion productive
  • Periodically step into the discussion and see if people who haven’t said anything yet would like to
  • Politely interrupt people who have been talking too long
  • Redirect discussion back on-topic if it gets derailed
  • Changing the topic is fine as long as most people agree with it


  • Your job is to keep people aware of time and help them use it productively
  • Let people know at 15 minutes left and 5 minutes left
  • At the end of the session, interrupt and tell people the session is officially over
  • If people want to continue the discussion, ask them to move out of the room


  • Your job is to record important points, conclusions, resources, etc.
  • Add a link to your notes at: [insert notes url here]

These roles can also be useful at slightly more structured meetings. If you have a particular goal but need a fairly open-ended discussion around it, appointing participants to guide the discussion in productive directions is very useful.