Going Online: How we organized the first ever virtual csv,conf (part 1)

This is the first of three guest blog posts by Serah Rono, Lilly Winfree, Jo Barratt, Elaine Wong, Jess Hardwicke, John Chodacki, and Jonathan Cain, co-organizers of csv,conf. Here, the authors share their reflections on the challenges and opportunities of moving an international conference online.

A brief history

csv,conf is a community conference that brings diverse groups together to discuss data topics, and features stories about data sharing and data analysis from science, journalism, government, and open source. Over the years, we have had over a hundred different talks from a huge range of speakers, most of which you can watch on our YouTube Channel

csv,conf,v1 took place in Berlin in 2014, and we were there again for v2 in 2016 before we moved across the Atlantic for v3 and v4, which were held in Portland, Oregon in the United States in 2017 and 2019. For csv,conf,v5 we were looking forward to our first conference in Washington DC, but unfortunately, like many other in-person events, this was not going to be possible in 2020. 

People have asked us about our experience moving from a planned in person event to one online, in a very short space of time, so we are sharing our story with the hope that it will be helpful to others, as we move into a world where online events and conferences are going to be more prevalent than ever. 

The decision to take the conference online was not an easy one. Until quite late on, the question csv,conf organizers kept asking each other was not “how will we run the conference virtually?” but  will we need to cancel?. As the pandemic intensified, this decision was taken out of our hands and it became quickly clear that cancelling our event in Washington DC was not only the responsible thing to do, but the only thing we could do. 

Weighing the decision to hold csv,conf,v5 online

Once it was clear that we would not hold an in-person event, we deliberated on whether we would hold an online event, postpone, or cancel. 

Moving online – The challenge

One of our main concerns was whether we would be able to encapsulate everything good about csv,conf in a virtual setting – the warmth you feel when you walk into the room, the interesting side conversations, and the feeling of being reunited with old friends, and naturally meeting new ones were things that we didn’t know whether we could pull off. And if we couldn’t, did we want to do this at all? 

We were worried about upholding our commitment to our speakers, but at the same time we were worried speakers may not be interested in delivering something virtually, or that it would not have the same appeal. It was important to us that there was value for the speakers, and at the start of this process we were committed to making this happen.

Many of us have experience running events both in person and online, but this was bigger. We had some great advice and drew heavily on the experience of others in similar positions to us. But it still felt like this was different. We were starting from scratch and for all of our preparation, right up to the moment we pressed ‘go live’ inside Crowdcast, we simply didn’t know whether it was going to work. 

What we found was that hard work, lots of planning and support of the community made it work. There were so many great things about the format that surprised and delighted us. We now find ourselves asking whether an online format is in fact a better fit for our community, and exploring what a hybrid conference might look like in the future.

Moving online – The opportunity

There were a great many reasons to embrace a virtual conference. Once we made the decision and started to plan, this became ever clearer. Not least was the fact that an online conference would give many more people the opportunity to attend. We work hard every year to reduce the barriers to attendance where possible, and we’re grateful to our supporters here, but our ability to support conference speakers is limited, and it is also probably the biggest cost year on year. We are conscious that barriers to entry still apply to a virtual conference, but they are different, and it is clear that for csv,conf,v5 more people who wanted to join could be part of it. csv,conf is normally attended by around 250 people. The in-person conferences usually fill up, with just a few attendees under capacity. It feels the right size for our community. But this year we had over 1,000 registrations. More new people could attend, and there were also more returning faces. 

Attendees from around the world during csv,conf,v5’s opening session.

Continue reading the series: part 2 and part 3 are now available.

About the authors

Serah Rono (The Carpentries), Lilly Winfree (Open Knowledge Foundation), Jo Barratt (Open Knowledge Foundation), Elaine Wong (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Jessica Hardwicke (Code for Science & Society), John Chodacki (California Digital Library), and Jonathan Cain (University of Oregon) were all co-organizers of csv,conf,5, and co-authored this series of blog posts. Martin Fenner, DataCite, Danielle Robinson, Code for Science & Society, and Paul Walsh, Datopian were also co-organizers of the conference.


Check out our resources pages for more CSCCE-curated resources on running events and hosting online communities.