A conversation with Ben Busby, DNAnexus BackgroundBen was involved in about 44 hackathons over a six year period at NCBI. The majority were almost exclusively...
csv,conf has always been an in-person conference run by a small group of dedicated volunteers, with this year’s meeting scheduled to be in D.C. Participants are invited to apply for sponsorship to attend, especially those who need to travel long distances and/or need visas. Attendees pay what they can for registration. They usually have about 250 attendees, including 10-12 organizers, who double up as session moderators. Sessions have always been recorded. It’s a community conference, so a lot of the interactions are organic. While it has always been a two-day conference, they book the venue for a full week to allow for collaborations among participants. This extended schedule also helps people who are traveling from far away. They’ve previously done informal sprints and a hackathon. Past conferences have been quite successful and allow for people to contribute what they can based on their capacity.
How they went virtual
In early March, they started thinking that the in-person meeting wouldn’t happen and in mid-late March, the question was raised about moving online. They realized they would have to make the transition once big conferences started announcing their cancellations. In April, they made the final decision to not hold the in-person event. It looked like they would have to completely cancel and had to encourage themselves to do it online. It was scary because they didn’t know if it would work and they made the decision without having worked out any of the details. They planned a two-day event, but some attendees created new Slack channels or breakout rooms to extend their participation and interactions. Talks were recorded, so they could be viewed asynchronously and speakers and participants could interact on Slack. They had nearly 1,000 attendees! Moving online increased participation because attendees didn’t need to travel. They used EventBrite, as they had in the past, because it was familiar to attendees, they wanted to make it feel like a conference, and wanted people to self-select to be there. It was free to sign up and upon registration, individuals received invitations to their Slack workspace.
You can’t tell what else is going on in people’s lives and can’t assume that you have participants’ undivided attention. It can be difficult to plan and organize because you don’t know if people will be there the whole time.
Benefits of CrowdCast
They set up several sessions in advance with speakers to allow them to practice and so the organizers could learn how CrowdCast works. These dress rehearsals helped the organizers develop good relationships with the speakers. CrowdCast has a virtual green room (backstage area), where speakers could test their presentations and ask questions. The platform allows for a split screen with the speaker on one side and presentation on the other, which looks personal, but meant that speakers had to format their slides so that content didn’t get cut off. This format allowed speakers and organizers to get energy from the crowd because it felt like there was an actual audience. They also loved the chat feature because anyone watching the recording could also see the chat.
They wished they could have had live transcription, but CrowdCast didn’t accommodate it. However, the videos are all now on YouTube, which has closed captioning. They’re trending toward holding their meeting annually because the community wants it. In the future, they’ll try to use thoughtful slides to transition between presentations and incorporate little touches to market the meeting, make it special and memorable, and combat Zoom fatigue. Two days felt kind of short; in the future, they’ll consider adding on a philanthropic hackathon or sprint. They’re also thinking about ways to sustain community participation once the conference is over. In the future, they’d like to make it a more global event and devise a schedule that is more accommodating for a range of time zones.
Online meetings raise the question about what is the responsible thing to do for the community. It’s cheaper, easier, and more accommodating to hold meetings online, so it may be a better use of time and funding than in-person meetings. However, it is nice to do in-person conferences and be able to meet up with people. How do you do a hybrid in-person/virtual meeting? The fear is that it would feel like organizing two conferences and there is concern about being able to do that well. It does take just as much time to plan an online event as an in-person one.
The online meeting was a success and felt very similar to in-person events. Feedback from attendees on Slack and Twitter has been overwhelmingly positive. The greatest success was being able to get the warm feeling that is obtained from in-person meetings from kind and thoughtful interactions, being able to see people’s work, working on what you believe in, and being completely worn out by it. It was particularly gratifying to partake in an online conference with an active, positive community. The llama livecast was wonderful and worked well with CrowdCast. People self-organized to interact with it and used a Twitter hashtag to share selfies.