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Many organizations around the world are finding themselves in a position of having to decide how to move forward on planned conferences and meetings in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic. This is the position that colleagues from the United Nations University Institute in Macau found themselves in with the 11th International Development Informatics Association conference (IDIA2020) planned for 25–27 March 2020. The organizing committee considered various options, including cancellation, postponement, or relocation (which was an option at the time), and ultimately decided on the virtual conference format.
While this was the right and responsible decision to make, it was nonetheless not an easy one, for several reasons:
Looking back at the recently concluded conference, not only was it the right and responsible decision to go virtual, it was also the best decision as aptly and eloquently articulated by one of the participants:
#IDIA2020 is showing us all that a new, sustainable way of #conferencing is possible - one that is virtual, interactive and accessible to researchers from all countries, without prohibitive fees and travel costs. Thanks to the organisers for making it possible! #ICT4D @idia2020 pic.twitter.com/VHor26nI7h— Silvia Masiero (@SilviaHedley) March 26, 2020
The following is what went in to making IDIA2020 a successful virtual conference and what can be applied in other contexts.
Extensive research went in to deciding the right tools to use for the conference from among the many alternatives. This boiled down to the choice of the conferencing platform as well as the audience engagement platform, which, in our case, ended up being Zoom and Mentimeter, respectively.
It is essential to have mitigation plans for known risks. We set up four levels of contingencies for the main risk of presenters having Internet connection problems: (1) talk and slide-sharing by presenters, (2) talk by presenters and slide-sharing by the Host, (3) telephone dial-in by presenters and slide-share by the Host, and (4) pre-recording of the presentations. We also considered and planned for some of the recently popularized risks associated with the chosen tools.
Roles and responsibilities around the virtual conference need to be clearly defined and rehearsed. For IDIA2020, the Host was responsible for managing participants; a Co-host managed presentations, slide-sharing, as well as the audience engagement platform, and session moderators (and stand-by moderators) facilitated the discussions.
Clear and timely communication, before and during the virtual conference, is essential because participants might not know what to expect and what is expected of them. Share detailed information on house rules (e.g., muting/unmuting, Q&A arrangements) and also share the program (available in multiple timezones).
It is essential to recognize and accept that the unexpected will happen and that solutions will need to be improvised on the spot. Having well-defined roles and responsibilities and clear team communication is essential. We set up a “control center” for IDIA2020, which helped the hosting team to work together to resolve issues as they occurred.
There is a temptation to hang-on to the usual and the traditional aspects of a physical conference and to try and force those into the virtual conference format. While some elements can and must persist in the virtual (see the next point), some things work well only in face-to-face engagements. For IDIA2020, we had to let go of some of the planned interactive workshops. Unfortunately, a few of our participants were also not keen to continue with the virtual format.
A common practice in conferences is the participant group photo, typically at the end of the conference. For IDIA2020, while the virtual format gave a new twist to the group photo, it gave the participants something familiar and expected. This and other such practices are necessary to hang on to, and if necessary, to adapt accordingly.
In conclusion, to borrow from Shakespeare, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune … On such a full sea are we now afloat." The COVID-19 pandemic, like many other global challenges, is providing us with an opportunity to reimagine our world and to improvise, innovate, and adapt the way we live and do business. Sharing experiences and expertise is a big part of leveraging such opportunities.
This article was contributed by Mamello THINYANE, Principal Research Fellow, United Nations University.