Weblog entry #10 for rkd

The DebConf travel sponsorship process
Posted by rkd on Tue 21 Sep 2010 at 21:13
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This is a guest post by Michael Schultheiss, DebConf10 travel sponsorship team lead.

DebConf doesn't just provide sponsored food and accommodation to attendees, it can also provide travel reimbursement to 20-30 attendees each year, from all over the world.

The travel sponsorship team has historically been formed by a call to debian-devel-announce for developers to review sponsorship requests. This has resulted in one of the most transparent review teams of DebConf, which is by design since this is one of the hardest decisions to make. A team of about ten people will review applications. The travel sponsorship team is typically comprised of both people with past travel sponsorship team experience as well as new members to help make the process as fair as possible. The team will consider the listed workplans, the answer to the question "what do you do for Debian", their general knowledge of Debian contributors, and web searches of Debian lists, debian.org, and the web in general, looking for Debian and free software related activities.

Applicants are rated on a 1-5 scale of contributor level and amount requested. These are averaged and sorted, and this is used as the basis of travel sponsorship - but is subject to human review for special cases. The team will then decide the cutoffs for the different queues - for example, DebConf10 used queue A which had money released first, queue B which was released after more fundraising, and queue C which was told "no". After these queues are decided, most of the selection team doesn't need to be as active, but anyone from that team can work with the organizers to decide percentages of funding of the queues and when to commit money to them, based on our budget.

Attendees submit documentation for actual flight costs after the conference, and can be reimbursed for min(actual_costs, amount_requested).

There are various problems with this system, which are pretty well known but not so easy to fix:

  • Attendees are supposed to put the amounts they can't afford to pay themselves, but we have no way of checking this (and probably wouldn't want to pry so much to be able to...)
  • Historically, money has been budgeted for travel sponsorship last, thus travel sponsorship usually isn't confirmed until late in the process. This means that flight prices have constantly gone up, and some people may be unable to attend DebConf due to uncertainty over travel sponsorship.
  • Attendees have a dilemma: They are supposed to enter only the amount they cannot fund themselves. But if there is a chance of fares being reimbursed at less the requested amount, then entering the amount absolutely required to attend results in a disadvantage.
  • Invariably, people get confuse "amount I am unable to afford" as "amount I am able to afford"
  • For some years, entering too high a requested sponsorship amount could result in a lower priority - instead of the selection team adjusting the amount downward. Thus, attendees have another dilemma about what to request.

These questions are hard to answer. I'm encouraged that there are some discussions on debconf-team which are working towards a better system. Most importantly, these people want to start early, which is almost guaranteed to result in a better outcome for everyone. If you are interested in working to improve the travel sponsorship process, I encourage you to get involved in the team and start early.