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IIE 2016

How Knack replaced a few spreadsheets and ended up
running an entire engineering conference.

IIE 2016

See Knack. See Knack Run [a Conference].

An engineering conference turned to Knack for a straightforward database solution. What they got was “the most important person on the team.”

“It all started with a form,” said Phil Everson, Media Lead for Waterloo IIE 2016. “We didn’t know the full extent of Knack’s capabilities at the beginning. Eventually, we couldn’t function without it.”

Each year, the Institute of Industrial Engineers puts on a conference for industrial engineering students from across Canada. The event has grown into quite a prominent destination, drawing hundreds of students from dozens of universities. It offers workshops, lectures, tours, competitions, and ample networking opportunities.

In January 2016, the 36th annual conference took place at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Phil and his colleague Sitesh Patel, the conference’s Communications Coordinator, were part of a 19-person team charged with planning, coordinating, and otherwise running this year’s event.

Phil and Sitesh are web developers themselves and considered building an application from scratch to help them handle the day-to-day tasks of the conference.

They knew this would be a sizeable endeavor, and one that came with risks: their app might not be as stable and they were wary that they wouldn’t be able to move as quickly as they needed to. In the end, explained Sitesh, they “felt safer with Knack.”

Though they had initially worried whether Knack could handle all the different aspects of the event, over time that question morphed into a different one: “What part of the conference did Knack not help with?”

We didn’t know the full extent of Knack’s capabilities at the beginning. Eventually we couldn’t function without it.

Improving on past solutions

In previous years, much of the conference data management was handled manually through Excel. Each student has a conference contact – a faculty member at his or her university who joins the student at the conference. In the past, these contacts had a significant amount of work to do on their end, gathering information and passing it along to the conference staff, who entered it into spreadsheets.

This year, Phil and Sitesh set out to simplify that entire process for universities and student delegates alike. This started by storing student contact info in Knack and enabling the Waterloo IIE 2016 team to collect that data from the students themselves.

Prior to the conference, student delegates used Knack forms to select their preferred rooms and roommates. Once those assignments were made, each delegate received a name tag with an NFC sticker on it. When they arrived at the conference, a coordinator would tap the student’s name tag, recording his or her arrival in Knack. Thanks to another web page built using Knack’s API, this also triggered a welcome text message via Twilio, which included the student’s room number.

Ready for registrations.

This process was such a hit amongst students that it actually caused a minor hiccup – they were getting so excited about the text alerts, stopping to chat amongst themselves over how cool this technology was, that they were holding up the line for new arrivals.

Why would you be using a spreadsheet? Just go check Knack.

Using data in different ways

The team converted more and more spreadsheets into their Knack app. Phil and Sitesh even instituted a rule for their teammates: if anyone was using Excel for anything, that person needed to come see them, since chances were that information belonged in Knack. As Phil asked, “Why would you be using a spreadsheet?”

Essentially, anyone with any connection to the conference was in Knack — not just student delegates but faculty advisors, speakers, sponsors, and even hotel staff. For keynote presenters, this meant the presenter’s company connection, whether or not he or she had an exhibit, and whether the exhibit table needed power. Knack could easily surface this connected data whenever it was needed.

One of the packed presentations

All of this combined to make what Phil and Sitesh refer to as a “significantly interconnected app.” As Sitesh advised, “don’t underestimate what you can do by connecting objects – it’s insanely powerful.”

With so many events happening, Knack’s features also came in handy with scheduling and organization. With a Knack calendar embedded in the conference website, delegates could see updated event times and locations in real time as the team made changes to the Knack data.

Unexpected Benefits

It wasn’t just event participation that Knack stored — the app contained all the students’ details. This included what school they were from, who their faculty advisors were, emergency contacts, and even food allergies.

This amount of data combined with the name tags made it easy to identify and direct conference participants in case anyone ended up in the wrong place. This became useful in a variety of unexpected ways, where more solutions were available simply because of how the team was able to leverage Knack’s data accessibility.

One night, a student who’d had a bit too much to drink posted himself in an elevator and refused to leave it. The Waterloo IIE team member who found him was able to search his name in Knack from her phone, identify his conference contact, and pull up the contact’s room number. Once reached, the contact was able to come down to the elevator and chaperone the student back to his room.

Helping disarm awkward social situations was never one of the original goals, but when you build a flexible and robust application you never know when it can come in handy!

Knack was arguably the most important person on the team.

“We couldn’t function without it”

The setting for the IIE conference changes each year, and in 2017 it will move to Dalhousie University in Halifax. Though Phil and Sitesh won’t have a hand in it next time around, they’ve already passed on their wisdom to the new team — particularly the value of Knack, and how it allowed them to set the bar so high.

“The conference itself seemed really polished, it seemed really put together and really personalized,” said Sitesh, “which never would’ve been possible without the backend that we had with Knack.” Knack was, Phil added, “arguably the most important person on the team.”

The motto for Waterloo IIE 2016 was: “Envision. Empower. Engineer.”

Yet amongst conference coordinators, the unofficial motto was a little different. Need to verify something on the schedule? Have to direct a delegate to an event? Want to look up a student’s emergency contact?

“Just go check Knack.”