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Last year we started organizing a conference in one of the European countries in September 2020. Everything was fixed and we had a number of registered people. As you all may know, due to the pandemic outbreak, many conferences in Europe were canceled. Since our conference was scheduled for September, we didn't declare it canceled and decided to wait a bit to see how the situation will be as we get close to the summer.

Now, recently we thought about having an online conference instead of a real one. But we don't want it to be a failure as we have no experience with it and we are not aware of the public opinion about an online conference.

Is it a good idea to change the conference to an online one or it is better to postpone the real conference until the end of this pandemic crisis?

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    "Public opinion" is probably not the phrase you want to use, unless this is a conference that you want to know what the typical person you pass while walking on the sidewalk thinks about the conference, which I find hard to imagine (at least pre-COVID-19, that is, when you'd actually pass someone on a sidewalk). Maybe "academic opinion"? However, since most every (if not actually every) conference for the next couple of months or more will be online or canceled, I'm not sure that opinions based on events in the past have much relevance. – Dave L Renfro May 12 '20 at 14:49
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    @KratosMath Oh, I just can't focus, people are much less good at online presentations than in-person, all the networking is lost, and I don't get to explore a new city. For me, they aren't really worth the price tag. – Azor Ahai -him- May 12 '20 at 16:18
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    My impression is that the lower price and lack of jet lag have made online conferences extremely popular in the last few weeks. – Anonymous Physicist May 13 '20 at 0:12
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    You might want to check with the people at venueless.org to get some info on best practices and the technical side of an online conference. (It's open source software, prices mentioned on that page are for hosting a conference on their server. I'm not affiliated with them, I just know some devs there.) – orithena May 13 '20 at 9:31
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    I am currently attending a virtual conference. The organizers used the platforms Zoho connect, zoom, and iPoster to put the conference together and pulled off the change from real conference to virtual in about 6 weeks - amazing. Not as good as the real thing, but will likely be the new normal for a long time, especially for events that typically attract a large, international audience. – Nova May 13 '20 at 13:37
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Great question; however, I don't think there is any consensus opinion as to how good online conferences are.

You might, however, read this blog post by Daniel Litt. He was an organizer of the Western Algebraic Geometry Online conference, held via Zoom this April. It was quite large, with around a thousand participants, and in my opinion very successful.

In his blog post he discusses what went well, what went less well, and what the organizers tried to achieve. In summary, the organizers weren't able to replicate everything good about an in-person conference, but overall they succeeded in creating a very valuable experience for the participants.

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The Association for Computing Machinery (the US scholarly society for computing) has a presidential task force on the subject of virtual conferences, and they maintain a rather detailed guide. This can help understand your options and whether going online is a good idea for your event.

Here are some experience reports in the computer science field: ASPLOS, EDBT/ICDT, ICLR. The first two have satisfaction surveys. There are pointers to other such resources in the ACM guide.

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    +1 nicely presented guidelines. – KratosMath May 13 '20 at 9:40
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Actually, public opinion is of little consequence. The times are chaotic and people need to do things differently as the old ways aren't viable (literally).

You have a couple of options:

You can just cancel the conference until some unknown future date (whether you express it that way or not) since the "end" of the current pandemic is over the horizon and not in sight.

You can do what you can do in the short term (probably online) to make the experience as good as you can make it, knowing that it may be a pale shadow of what might be possible otherwise. You can, to some extent, bring people together so that they can share ideas. That is the real essence.

My suggestion is that you plan now for the worst case scenario, whether you need to actually implement it or not. But if you don't have a plan in place then it will be more chaotic than it needs to be.

You can, in particular, give a tentative future date for a face to face meeting while warning people that the date is tenuous and an online meeting might be the only resort. A bigger problem, of course, is arranging the proper infrastructure, whether it is for a face to face meeting (reserving a venue) or an online meeting (bandwidth, video/sound equipment, etc). But make a plan now.

With more experience with online meetings we may learn more about the relative desirability of such things. If people learn to adapt then they will turn out to be fine. Otherwise there will be a lot of pressure to go back to more traditional meetings.

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I think it is hard to give a general answer, what is best depends not only on what you consider best, but it may vary from conference to conference, and the audience.

But switching to an online conference is exactly what we did (The Perl & Raku conference). And although it's not an academic conference, many of the issues that were relevant to us, maybe relevant to you as well.

Our conference was scheduled for June, in Houston, Texas. We did both postpone and organize an online conference. Our conference is held yearly, in rotating cities in the USA (and sometimes Canada). We postponed the physical conference to 2021, to the same location. It did help that the hotel where the conference was being held was willing to work with us, and we could move the contract to the next year without much fuss. Groups who were working on bids for the 2021 conference were asked to work on a bid for 2022 instead.

We also decided to do an online conference. Partially because we had already accepted talks, and we wanted to give speakers an opportunity to present anyway, and partially because we felt that it takes way less resources to organize an online event than a physical event -- there is no venue to deal with, no catering, no travel arrangements for invited speakers, etc.

We did attract less submissions for the online conference than the physical one -- where we normally have 3 or 4 four parallel tracks during a 3 day conference, we now have 2 parallel tracks over 3 days. And that is even taking into account we got more submissions from European speakers than normally: were they are usually not willing to travel to the US, and go to our sister conference in Europe instead, there is no travel time for an online conference. Also, the European conference, scheduled for September, got cancelled as well, and will not do a separate online version. But there have been a number of speakers who signaled that they do not want to present online, and quite a number of people who submitted for the physical conference, did not do it for the online one.

A decision which needs to be taken is, what tool are you going to use to broadcast the presentations? Requirements for us were: the software should work on Linux, Mac, and Windows, with no costs for users; minimal costs for the organizers were acceptable. It should handle a large enough audience. It should be interactive, but moderated (that is, audience is normally muted, but can speak when allowed by the moderator). We decided to use Zoom, and stream on YouTube. Audience who wants to interact must use Zoom, no interaction will be possible on YouTube.

Another issue to deal with with an online conference is the schedule and time zones. With a physical conference, everyone is together and hence, in the same time zone. We will now dealing with people in the USA (from East to West), Europe, and an invited speaker located in Australia. Hence we start the conference at 11 AM Eastern Time, which is early, but, hopefully, not too early on the West Coast of the USA, with the last events ending at 5:30 PM Easter Time, which is past midnight for most of Europe. Hence, when I was scheduling the talks, I put European speakers in the morning as much as possible, and US and Canadian speakers later in the day. The Australian speaker is scheduled at the end of the day, which will be the next day for him. And unlike the physical events, we did not schedule any coffee/lunch/dinner breaks, audience members are scattered over too many time zones to make this work out.

Not everything can carry over. There will be no (obviously) no social events. And while we usually have a few days before/after the conference were (paid) classes are given, we have now restricted this to a single class. We have not worked out whether there will be any BOF (birds of a feather) meetings, and, if so, how we want to facilitate this.

For us, this is going to be an experiment. We do not know whether it's going to be a success, we can only decide that afterwards. And even if it's a success, that does not mean every other online event will be a success (and so it the opposite, if we fail, that does not imply other online conferences can't be a success).

This doesn't exactly answer your question ("Is it a good idea to change the conference to an online one or it is better to postpone the real conference until the end of this pandemic crisis?"), but I hope this answer will help you decide whether it's a good idea for you to change the conference to an online one or whether it's better to postpone your conference.

  • This was a comprehensive answer. Thanks! – KratosMath May 13 '20 at 19:23

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