This is the second 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 (check out part 1 and part 3). In this post, the authors share their process for planning an online conference.
Planning an online conference
Despite the obvious differences, much about organising a conference remains the same whether virtual or not. Indeed, by the time we made the shift to an online conference, much of this work had been done.
From September 2019, the organising team met regularly every few weeks on a virtual call. We reviewed our list of things and assigned actions. We used a private channel on Slack for core organizers to keep updated during the week.
We had a good mix of skills and interests on the organizing team, from community wranglers, to writers and social media aces.
We’d like to give a shout out to the team of local volunteers we had on board to help with DC-specific things. In the end, this knowledge wasn’t needed for the virtual conf.
We recruited a group of people from the organising team to act as the programme committee. This group would be responsible for running the call for proposals (CFP) and selecting the talks.
We relied on our committed team of organisers for the conference and we found it helpful to have very clear roles/responsibilities to help manage the different aspects of the ‘live’ conference. We had a host who introduced speakers, a Q&A/chat monitor, a technical helper, and a Safety Officer/Code of Conduct enforcer at all times. It was also helpful to have “floaters” who were unassigned to a specific task, but could help with urgent needs.
We were keen on making it easy for people to complete the call for proposals. We set up a Google form and asked just a few simple questions.
All talks were independently reviewed and scored by members of the committee and we had a final meeting to review our scores and come up with a final list. We were true to the scoring system, but there were other things to consider. Some speakers had submitted several talks and we had decided that even if several talks by the same person scored highly, only one could go into the final schedule. We value diversity of speakers, and reached out to diverse communities to advertise the call for proposals and also considered diversity when selecting talks. Also, where talks were scoring equally, we wanted to ensure we we’re giving priority to speakers who were new to the conference.
We asked all speakers to post their slides onto the csv,conf Zenodo repository. This was really nice to have because attendees asked multiple times for links to slides, so we could simply send them to the Zenodo collection.
Though it proved to not be relevant for 2020’s virtual event, it’s worth mentioning that the process of granting travel or accommodation support to speakers was entirely separate from the selection criteria. Although we asked people to flag a request for support, this did not factor into the decision making process.
Creating a Schedule
Before we could decide on a schedule, we needed to decide on the hours and timezones we would hold the conference. csv,conf is usually a two-day event with three concurrently run sessions. We eventually decided to have the virtual event remain two days in length, but to have one main session with limited concurrent talks. Since the in-person conference was supposed to occur in Washington, DC, many of our speakers were people in US timezones, so we focused on timezones that would work best for those speakers. We also wanted to ensure that our conference organizers would be awake during the conference. We started at 10am Eastern, which was very early for West Coast (7am) and late afternoon for non-US attendees (3pm UK; 5pm Eastern Europe). We decided on 7 hours of programming, meaning the conference ended in late afternoon for US attendees and late evening for Europe. Unfortunately, these timezones did not work for everyone (notably the Asia-Pacific region), and we recommend that you pick timezones that work for your speakers and your conference organizers whilst stretching things as far as possible if equal accessibility is important to you. We also found it was important to clearly list the conference times in multiple timezones on our schedule so that it was easier for attendees to know what time the talks were happening.
Tickets and Registration
Although most of what makes csv,conf successful is human passion and attention (and time!), we also found that the costs involved in running a virtual conference are minimal. Except for some extra costs for upgrading our communication platforms, and making funds available to support speakers in getting online, running the conference remotely saved us several thousand dollars.
We have always used an honor system for ticket pricing. We ask people pay what they can afford, with some suggested amounts depending on the attendees situation. But we needed to make some subtle changes for the online event, as it was a different proposition. We first made it clear that tickets were free, and refunded those who had already purchased tickets.
Eventbrite is the platform we have always used for registering attendees for the conference, and it does the job. It’s easy to use and straightforward. We kept it running this year for consistency and to ensure we’re keeping our data organised, even though it involved importing the data into another platform.
We were able to make the conference donation based thanks to the support of the Sloan Foundation and individual contributors and donations. Perhaps because the overall registrations also went up, we found that the donations also went up. In the future, and with more planning and promotion, it would be feasible to consider a virtual event of the scale of csv,conf funded entirely by contributions from the community it serves.
Code of Conduct
We spent significant time enhancing our Code of Conduct for the virtual conference. We took in feedback from last year’s conference and reviewed other organizations’ Code of Conducts. The main changes were to consider how a Code of Conduct needed to relate to the specifics of something happening online. We also wanted to create more transparency in the enforcement and decision-making processes.
One new aspect was the ability to report incidents via Slack. We designated two event organizers as “Safety Officers.” They were responsible for responding to any incident reports and were available for direct messaging via Slack (see the Code of Conduct for full details). We also provided a neutral party to receive incident reports if there were any conflicts of interest.
Communication via Slack
We used Slack for communications during the conference, and received positive feedback about this choice. We added everyone that registered to the Slack channel to ensure that everyone would receive important messages.
We had a Slack session-bot that would announce the beginning of each session with the link to the session, and received a lot of positive feedback about this choice. For people not on Slack, we also had the schedule in a Google spreadsheet and on the website, and everyone that registered with an email received the talk links via email, too. For the session-bot, we used the Google Calendar for Team Events app on Slack.
Another popular Slack channel that was created for this conference was a dedicated Q&A channel allowing speakers to interact with session attendees, providing more context around their talks, linking to resources, and chatting about possible collaborations. At the end of each talk, one organizer would copy all of the questions and post them into this Q&A channel so that the conversations could continue. We received a lot of positive feedback about this and it was pleasing to see the conversations continue.
We also had a dedicated speakers channel, where speakers could ask questions and offer mutual support and encouragement both before and during the event.
Another important channel was a backchannel for organisers, which we used mainly to coordinate and cheer each other on during the conf. We also used this to ask for technical help behind the scenes to ensure everything ran as smoothly as possible.
After talks, one organizer would use Slack Private Messaging to collate and send positive feedback for speakers, as articulated by attendees during the session. This was absolutely worth it and we were really pleased to see the effort was appreciated.
Slack is of course free, but its premium service does offer upgrades for charities and we were lucky enough to make use of this. The application process is very easy, and takes less that 10 minutes.
We made good use of Twitter throughout the conference and there were active #commallama and #csvconf hashtags going throughout the event. The organisers had joint responsibility for this. We simply announced the hashtags at the beginning of the day and people picked them up easily. We had a philosophy of ‘over-communicating’ – offering updates as soon as we had them, and candidly. We used it to to share updates, calls-to-action, and to amplify people’s thoughts, questions and feedback
Picking a video conference platform
One of the biggest decisions we had to make was picking a video conferencing platform for the conference. We originally considered using Zoom, but were concerned about a few things. The first was reports of rampant “zoom-bombing”, where trolls join Zoom meetings with the intent to disrupt the meeting. The second concern was that we are a small team of organisers and there would be great overhead in moderating a Zoom room with hundreds of attendees – muting, unmuting, etc. We also worried that a giant Zoom room would feel very impersonal. Many of us now spend what is probably an unnecessary amount of our daily lives on Zoom and we also felt that stepping away from this would help mark the occasion as something special, so we made the decision to move away from Zoom and we looked to options that are more of a broadcast tool than a meeting tool.
We saw another virtual conference that used Crowdcast (https://neuromatch.io/) and were impressed with how it felt to participate, so we started to investigate it as a platform before enthusiastically committing to it, with some reservations.
The best parts of Crowdcast to us were the friendly user interface, which includes a speaker video screen, a dedicated chat section with a prompt bar reading “say something nice”, and a separate box for questions. It felt really intuitive and the features were considered, useful, and we incorporated most of them.
From the speaker, participant, and host side, the experience felt good and appropriate. The consideration on the different user types was clear in the design and appreciated. One great function was that of a green room, which is akin to a speakers’ couch at the backstage of an in-person conference, helping to calm speakers’ nerves, check their audio and visual settings, discuss cues, etc. before stepping out onto the stage.
Another benefit of Crowdcast is that the talks are immediately available for re-viewing, complete with chat messages for people to revisit after the conference. This was great as it allowed people to catch up quickly if they missed something on the day, and feel part of the conference discussions as they developed. We also released all talk videos on YouTube and Tweeted the links to each talk.
But, Crowdcast was not without its limitations. Everything went very well, and the following issues were not deal breakers, but acknowledging them can help future organisers plan and manage expectations.
Top of the list of concerns was our complete inexperience with it, and the likely inexperience of our speakers. To ensure that our speakers were comfortable using Crowdcast, we held many practice sessions with speakers before the conference, and also had an attendee AMA before the conference to get attendees acquainted with the platform. These sessions were vital for us to practice all together, and this time and effort absolutely paid off!
If there is one piece of advice you should take away from reading this guide it is this: practice practice practice, and give others the opportunity and space to practice as well.
One challenge we faced was hosting – only one account has host privileges, but we learned that many people can log into that account at the same time to share host privileges. Hosts can allow other people to share their screen and unmute, and they can also elevate questions from the chat to the questions box. They can also kick people out if they are being disruptive (which didn’t happen for us, but we wanted to be prepared). This felt a bit weird, honestly, and we had to be careful to be aware of the power we had when in the hosts position. Weird, but also incredibly useful and a key control feature for an event run by a group rather than an individual.
In Crowdcast you can only share four screens at a time (so that would be two people sharing two screens). Our usual set up was a host, with one speaker sharing their screen at a time. We could add a Speaker for the talks that only had a single other speaker but any more that this we would have had problems.
It was easy enough for the host to chop and change who is on screen at any time, and there’s no limit on the total number of speakers in a session. So there is some flexibility, and ultimately, we were OK. But this should be a big consideration if you are running an event with different forms of presentation.
Crowdcast was also not without its technical hiccups and frustrations. Speakers sometimes fell off the call, or had mysterious problems sharing their screens. We received multiple comments/questions on the day about the video lagging/buffering. We often had to resort to the ol’ refresh refresh refresh approach which, to be fair, mostly worked. And on the few occasions we were stumped, there’s quite a lot of support available online and directly from Crowdcast. But honestly, there were very few technical issues for a two-day online conference.
Some attendees wanted info on the speakers (ex: name, twitter handle) during the presentation and we agree it would have been a nice touch to have a button or link in Crowdcast. There is the “call to action” feature, but we were using that to link to the code of conduct.
Crowdcast was new to us, and new to many people in the conference community. As well as the practices outlined above, we found it helpful to set up an FAQ page with content about how to use Crowdcast and what to expect from an online conference in general. Overall, it was a good decision and a platform we would recommend for consideration.
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.