Monday 27 April 2020

Virtual Conferences - Part II

The ongoing Coronavirus crisis has pushed several conferences into a hasty virtual version, with varying degrees of success.  As described in my previous post, there are opportunities to be inventive and imaginative, recognising the potential advantages of inclusivity and accessibility, and to offer something that people can participate in across the time zones.  So let's see what's currently on offer.

LPSC 2020 

LPSC was cancelled in early March, without enough time to shift to a virtual format for talks and posters.  Some virtual meetings were offered spanning topics of community interest (the planetary decadal survey, NASA townhalls, etc.), and a series of Virtual Early Career Planetary Networking Events are now underway, consisting of real-time online conferences via 'RingCentral' (3 slides, 5 minutes per presenter) that are hopefully being watched by prospective employers, and can then be shared online.  LPSC have provided hosting for e-posters, as has the Earth and Space Science Open Archive (ESSOAr), which is also used for the AGU.  

Leigh:  Despite the fact that you can then get a DOI for your contribution, there doesn't appear to have been a wide-scale uptake of this approach, as I don't see many papers on the archives.  I'm not sure how many people might actually be downloading and reading them, either, unless it was really close to my research area - it's not like browsing posters and chatting to authors in person.

EGU 2020

EGU (scheduled for early May) had more time to plan, so could be more ambitious. Using the #shareEGU20 hashtag, EGU runs for four days in May and became free to join, although uploads of presentation materials and commenting required authors and participants to have a Copernicus user account.  Abstracts had been submitted before the crisis, and charged a €40 abstract processing fee.  The conference would be entirely through uploaded "displays", comments on the presentations, and real-time text chats (08:30 to 18:00 CEST).  There would be no live presentations in the science sessions, nor video or audio chats.  Union symposia (one per day, 10:45-12:30 CEST), great debates, and some townhall meetings would be hosted through videoconferencing.

For scientific sessions, authors could upload presentations for a month before the meeting, then a dedicated, live, text-based chat for discussion would be held for the presentations of that session.  Presentations could have a variety of formats - PDFs or PPTs of the slides, or even mp4 files to record a video.  The important thing was that the appropriate Creative Commons License be included, and that presentation materials (and potentially comments) would remain online.  This shouldn't make any difference to future publication - most journals specifically allow posting on a (not-for-profit) preprint server prior to submission.  Journals allow, and usually encourage, that authors discuss their work at conferences prior to writing and submitting a manuscript.

Uploads of presentation materials were encouraged from 1 April to 31 May, and the same two-month period is valid for comments by the community and replies by the authors.  Then the May 4-8th session chats are in real time and are time-limited.  EGU opens one text-based chat channel per session linked in the online programme. The link becomes active 15 minutes prior to scheduled session start and disappears 30 minutes after the scheduled end of the session. All chat channels use the software sendbird run on servers of Amazon Web Services (AWS) located in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.  Chats are not recorded and archived. The posts are deleted after the session ends.  The text-based live chat neither involves live presentations, nor video or audio chats, in order to remain inclusive for all attendees.  All orals, posters, and PICO talks were converted to 'displays' that allow those who have submitted abstracts to upload presentation materials, opt in to commenting, and participate in a live text chat during the scheduled session time.

Leigh:  I set up a personal programme for the giant planet sessions, finding a large number of withdrawn abstracts or non-presented materials.  Even so, there were tonnes of talk titles, and I found little to motivate me to download and read each one.  There needs to be a bit of organisation, so that talks are assembled into sub-groups and themes, rather than big long lists of links.  

Those links I clicked on provided the full slide decks, but without someone talking me through the materials, I quickly lost interest.  I'd much rather listen to someone tell me the story, with the central narrative and rationale that you get in a talk, rather than just reading someone's slides.  I clicked through a few titles I was interested in, but there were no comments.  I'm interested to see how the text chats go.

AAS 2020

AAS were due to hold their 236th meeting in Madison in early June, and have switched to a 3-day version of their usual summer conference (slimmed down from 4 days).  The bulk of the meeting will be held in real time, restricted to those who register, and captured for later access by registrants who might have missed something in real time.  Recordings of the plenary talks will be made freely available to all AAS members.  Science sessions will be parallel 90-minute sessions of short talks arranged thematically, with iPoster (digital interactive) contributed posters and iPoster-Plus (presentations featuring short talks illustrated with iPosters), also arranged thematically.  There would still be press conferences, but they decided not to include splinter meetings.

AAS will be using Zoom Webinars (not Zoom Meetings) for science sessions and plenaries. A “host” and a small number of “participants” control the meeting and give the presentations, while the “attendees” (from dozens to hundreds) are not seen, heard, or able to control anything or share their screens. Attendees may ask questions and respond to polls initiated and controlled by the host or participants. I've seen iPosters presented at DPS meetings, where authors use standard templates to create a digital iPoster, which is then available online shortly before, during, and after the conference.  iPosters can include audio narration; high-resolution, zoomable images; videos and animations; and text with (or without) embedded hyperlinks. In addition, iPosters include a "chat" feature that allows someone viewing an iPoster to interact in real time with the author.

Leigh:  I really like the idea of the iPosters, and have seen these in action before.  Having the regular orals delivered realtime via webinars means a substantial inconvenience for anyone in a different time zone, but at least they will be recorded and so could be viewed later (by attendees at least).  Speakers will only be answering questions during the live sessions, but there can be virtual rooms after sessions to continue the conversation.

EAS 2020

The European Astronomical Society Annual Meeting (formerly known as EWASS) was due to be held in Leiden in late June, and has moved to an online meeting using a custom-built platform from their organisers, Kuoni.  It seems that registration fees are being refunded, but that the virtual meeting will charge a reduced fee (€80 for 5 days, €50 for one day).  According to their FAQ page, the meeting will still take place over 5 days, with some elements live, and some pre-recorded.  It looks like they'll also stick to the Central European time zone, just like AAS is sticking to the US time zone, making it a challenge for participants in time zones greatly removed.    For registered participants the presentations (platform and posters) will be made available after the meeting for a limited period of time (TBD).  They are aiming to use interaction options like chat, Q&A and live polling, and there will be ePoster sessions. 

Leigh:  The virtual EAS is still evolving, but also seems to be aiming to use the regular time slot for their meeting, rather than distributing it over a longer time period.  It'll be interesting to see how the real-time and asynchronous aspects of the conference blend together.

**This post is a work-in-progress, please check back!**

Thursday 23 April 2020

Uranus from Hubble

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Virtual Conferences - Part I

It's now been 6 weeks since I last stepped foot in my office.  6 weeks of trying to be productive from home, and it feels like a vast swathe of my working time has been spend on virtual meetings via Zoom, Skype, Teams, BlueJeans, Webex.... I've even taken the lead on a few.

They're not great - lots of hours spent in front of my computer (sometimes listening via my mobile phone), often at inconvenient hours because of differences in time zones, and usually wishing the speaker would've just summarised their thoughts in an email.

And now we're facing the prospect of some of the major planetary science conferences moving online, and it's abundantly clear that WE CAN'T EXPECT THIS TO BE BUSINESS AS USUAL.  There has to be a better way for doing this.  Thankfully, this is an issue that's already been considered by much more thoughtful people than me.

Benefits of Virtual Conferences

Here are some of the reasons why virtual conferencing really should become more frequent in the 21st century, even without global health crises preventing travel:
  • Climate, climate, climate:  The carbon footprint of academic departments is usually overwhelmed by researchers travelling across the world for meetings, and its time for a culture change if we're to do our bit.  I think it's fair to admit that some of this travel is unnecessary.
  • Work-life balance: how many weekends have been lost to travel, ready to start a meeting at 9am on a Monday?  Family life disrupted because of the need to start at the beginning of the "working week?"  
  • Inclusivity:  How many members of our community are we missing because of parental and other carer responsibilities?  How many voices are absent because travel poses extreme challenges, financially, physically, or mentally?  Shifting online might open the door to a more inclusive conference.
  • Less time wasted on "marginally-useful" meetings: We all know them - the meetings we felt we had to show our faces at, even though we didn't have a lot to contribute, and didn't learn a lot as a result.  FOMO - fear of missing out - often drives us to attend.  Now we can attend them virtually, and possibly even multi-task to get other things done at the same time.   

Problems with Virtual Conferences

Here are some common problems with virtual meetings, some easier to solve than others:
  • Stifled Discussions:  Virtual conferences are great as a one-way flow of information, either as live talks or pre-recorded presentations.  But new collaborations and ideas often stem from the more informal coffees, lunches, poster sessions, and chance encounters.  These casual "in-person" chats are currently hard (but not impossible) to replicate in the virtual world, and lack the "spontaneity" of people meeting in the same physical location.  There's also the question of the lack of human contact, where in-person conferences might be the highlight for those working in isolation.
  • Multiple time zones:  My work is very Europe/US focussed, meaning lots of late-afternoon and evening meetings.  The idea of running an 8-hour conference day virtually is just a nonsense - no one is working at their best under those circumstances, and I personally struggle to keep my brain going late in the evening.  Not to mention those colleagues trying to follow from the east, in the middle of the night...  so: make one-way information delivery (i.e., talks) available to watch during preferred timezones, and keep discussion meetings for a mutually-convenient (and shorter) time slot.
  • Lost voices:  Raising your hand in a big meeting can sometimes be nerve-wracking.  Doing it online, when you're not sure who is listening, and in the absence of virtual cues to know how they're responding to your question (rolling their eyes, or wide-eyed astonishment), it can be extremely daunting.  We need a way to make all participants comfortable and willing to contribute.
  • Loud voices:  In the same vein, some speakers will dominate the Q&A and discussion,  overwhelming everyone else, and hogging all the precious time.  A strong moderator, able to recognise and involve everyone, is a must for inclusive virtual conferences.
  • Can you hear me now?  I was on mute... You can play conference bingo, with phrases like this on almost every meeting.  The technology is getting better and better, but often relies on the skills of the users - we shouldn't assume that all participants have good microphones, good cameras, quiet environments conducive to chats, sufficient broadband to connect, or know how to share a screen, presentation, or virtual whiteboard.  
  • Promotion and career progression:  Standing on stage and delivering your first conference talk is a tremendously nerve-wracking experience, but can open doors to future jobs and collaborations.  Early-career researchers rely on conference networking for opportunities, mid-career researchers need keynote and invited presentations for promotion, and the virtual world is hard-pushed to deliver this.  UCSB professor Ken Hiltner describes this as "present or perish."
  • The art of presentation:  I've given short lectures via web conference, and they're hard - when I'm in front of an audience, I try to read the energy, knowing when to ramp up enthusiasm to keep people going, or when to go back over a concept because of blank, horrified faces.  You play to the crowd.  You don't get that sat alone at your desk.  But that's a small price to pay.
PS:  Trying to blend virtual conferences and in-person meetings together invariably leads to problems.  It's a nightmare dialling in to a meeting when the room is full of people talking to one another.  Far better to go all-or-nothing, and to have everyone participating remotely so that they're on an equal footing!

Another Way...

Virtual conferences will probably never replicate the face-to-face interactions that we're used to.  However, the COVID-19 crisis is, by necessity, leading to innovation in virtual conferencing, but this is a challenge that was already being considered as part of the nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference model.  That helpful guide suggests:
  1. Speakers pre-record their conference presentations for hosting on a conference website (which can be as simple as a Wordpress site) so that they may be viewed at any time (i.e., removing the real-time requirement), giving the viewer time to think and come up with questions.  Pre-recorded videos can also be better-rehearsed and polished, and also closed-captioned (in multiple languages) for greater accessibility.
  2. A shared online Q&A session (organised into themed sub-panels) over 2-3 weeks, with written questions and answers, where the members of a panel respond to audience queries.  Eliminating the "live Q&A" and making them "asynchronous" means that the problem of multiple time zones is removed, and removing the pressure of "on-stage" questions might allow more time to think and develop robust answers.  Breakout sessions on specific themes could also be organised.
  3. Archive of content (talks and Q&A transcripts) after the conference, open access across the globe.  This one I worry about a little - sometimes conference talks are used to present data before publication/peer-review, and authors may be reluctant to risk any (social) media coverage ahead of key publications.  Maybe a "do not cite" or a time-limited shelf life could be incorporated?
I particularly like this paragraph on Hiltner's website: "Such events can result in far more efficient use of a conference goer’s time, as one can quickly scan through the text of a talk or a Q&A session for material of interest. Consequently, this NCN approach allows us to listen to all the talks of interest to us – and none of those that are not – in the order, and at a time, of our choosing"

Hiltner encourages conference organisers to experiment with this scheme, and I personally feel that a blend of pre-recorded talks (sometimes called "asynchronous" content), real-time live discussion ("synchronous"content), and Q&A might be the right combination of flavours, and I hope that our planetary-science conferences (DPS, EPSC, AGU, EGU, LPSC, COSPAR) find a balance.  Tanja de Bie of the Leiden Centre for Innovation also has a handy run-down of remote conference pros, cons, and suggestions. 

And the ACM guide for virtual conferences provides a low-overhead virtual conference:  "First, ask authors to pre-record their talks and upload the videos to YouTube. Link those video from the conference website. This involves very low overhead on the part of the conference organizers, as they do not have to deal with supporting the live presentation of all these talks. Additionally, set up a few synchronous sessions for Q&A with groups of authors and panels using one of the videoconferencing and/or Webinar systems (e.g., Zoom). Consider also setting up a Slack workspace for participants to chat before, during, and after the live sessions. The links to the live sessions can be disseminated in Slack."

In particular for planetary science, there's an opportunity for short, focussed sub-meetings (i.e., a week-long meeting on one topic), eliminating the nightmare of overlapping parallel sessions that plague the major meetings.  Why be constrained to a single week?  Why not have the conference over a month, spreading out the themes?  I think you still need to make it "an event" over a limited time period, so it doesn't just feel like a series of talks on a website.  Provided everyone is in the same boat, why not have regional hubs, so some people could meet in person to watch presentations and hold panels?

In Part II of this post, I'll try to look at some examples of virtual conferences being held in 2020, to explore the pros and cons....