Last Wednesday evening, people crowded round pub tables in Galway, eager to discuss artificial intelligence and how it affects us. How did they get there? Let’s rewind a little...

It started back in January when Paul, our CEO, laid down a challenge to create an event that reached out to our local community in Galway. He was looking for a volunteer to run it.

I’d been working in customer support at Ex Ordo for around 3 months and I jumped at the opportunity.

I’ve always had a passion for music and live events. After I completed an MA in Arts Policy and Practice at NUI Galway, I wound up at Ex Ordo by chance. But a few months into my time here, I started to enjoy myself. There’s loads about my job that I find fulfilling. In our support team we have the freedom to work on bigger projects alongside our day-to-day customer tasks. And in my spare time I still help produce a small music festival in Louth. (It’s called Vantastival, if I can tempt you...)

Edify’s beginnings

The brief wasn’t much more than “let’s do a cool talk and invite people.” But getting the opportunity to combine my work at Ex Ordo with my passion for live events was too exciting to refuse. So I got stuck into organizing Edify.

Having a non-tech person like me as the organizer meant I wanted accessibility: Edify had to appeal to a wide range of people. Our first event in April was a homegrown affair. We chose the subject of social engineering and things fell into place fairly organically. Two of my Ex Ordo colleagues, Liam and Cathal, researched and presented the talk one evening in our office. We invited friends and grouped together seats to form a mini amphitheatre. The intimate setup and broad nature of the topic got a conversation going.

Giving directions at the first Edify

The first Edify confirmed that we’d hit on something Galway needs more of: engaging, thought-provoking discussions. Talks that potentially anyone could enjoy and gain insight from. I knew it had the potential to grow. And I wanted it to be bigger and better this time.

Taking on new challenges

Just as the planning for our second Edify was in its very early stages, I came across two eye-opening talks on artifical intelligence (AI) at Manchester’s music and science festival Bluedot. The speakers were funny and charismatic and had the audience of children and adults entertained and intrigued. Their theories on AI were relatable and calming even. Hearing that the world was not necessarily going to end at the hand of robots was a nice thought to walk away with.

Sitting in the audience, I distinctly remember being inspired, thinking that I could bring something similar to Galway through Edify. From then, I was hooked on AI.

Now it was just a case of finding a speaker, a venue and planning everything else that comes along with organizing a live event...

I found what I thought was the ideal speaker: a lecturer specialising in AI. He said yes and we made some arrangements, then he abruptly stopped responding to my messages. This was no doubt the most stressful part of organizing Edify. This guy was the first person I asked and he said yes. At the time, he was the dream speaker, so when that fell apart, I needed to act fast.

That forced me to be more creative in how I went about sourcing a speaker who could give a talk that had broad appeal. Finding a good speaker isn’t like finding music for a lineup. Specialists don’t often advertise their speaking abilities. Someone could be most learned person in a subject but be so dull that people are drifting off, mid-talk.

I definitely didn’t want that to happen.

So I started looking closer to home. Considering the amount of creativity and talent right here in Galway, why would I need to look elsewhere? I found my first speaker - Micheál Reilly - through a MeetUp about AI. And he suggested another speaker, Edward Fagan, who coincidentally was at our first Edify. Just from meeting Micheál and Edward, I knew they had the ability to captivate an audience.

Ed, Micheál and me

It just seemed to fall into place. Though in hindsight, I put a lot into it before that could happen. I often think of the motivational quote “the harder you work, the luckier you get”. Well, that couldn’t be more true in this case. With two excellent speakers and a topic as intriguing as AI, Edify was booked out weeks in advance.

The rewards

Like most people, I don’t like public speaking. And the thought of introducing the speakers was on my mind. Paul talked me through his tactics for dealing with public speaking, and I did a lot of practising. Thankfully, after a stressful day of setting up involving car trouble and a spot of illegal parking outside the city courthouse, addressing a crowd didn’t phase me.

Ed and Micheál were extremely engaging and their talks were accessible to all types of audience members. After the talks, the audience put their queries to Ed and Micheál, resulting in a chatty and informative discussion. Our small venue was an intimate full house, which added to the atmosphere and level of audience engagement. After reassuring applause, the general consensus was that the event was everything it intended to be.
Ed and Micheál in action

The whole point of Edify is to host thought provoking, accessible intellectual discussions that anyone - be they a doctor, an engineer, a teacher or a chef - could partake in. This is exactly what happened. People were still discussing the topics raised by Ed and Micheál several hours later in the pub.

Organizing Edify has been a learning curve. Before Edify I’d never organized my own event. And I’d never organized an event by myself.

Does this experience mean I’m 100% prepared to organize another event? Nope. Nothing can fully prepare you for running a live event. Circumstances change and the nature of planning live events is notoriously unpredictable.

It’s not for everyone, but for some, working in such an environment can be a motivating adrenaline rush. Not all too unlike working in customer support at Ex Ordo.