Crista Lopes and Colleagues Develop Virtual Conference Portal and Bring ICSE 2020 to Life

July 16, 2020

The 42nd ACM/IEEE International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) was scheduled to take place in May in Seoul, South Korea. As the premier venue for disseminating research in software engineering, the conference attracts thousands of researchers each year. However, because of the global pandemic, the organizers had to cancel this year’s physical conference.

“In early May, they reached out to me to help them re-create it as a virtual conference during July 6-11,” says Informatics Professor Crista Lopes, who became the first-ever ICSE virtualization chair. She quickly pulled together a globally dispersed team of almost 50 volunteers and, leveraging an innovative virtual conference portal she is developing with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), her team was able to move ICSE from Seoul into the homes of researchers spread across a variety of countries and time zones.

“Together, we were able to organize a live and lively event for five days that attracted over 1,300 people from around the world,” says Lopes. “Everyone was stunned with the experience; it was a smashing success!”

Virtual ICSE
Participants attended the conference through Clowdr, the Web-based virtual conference platform Lopes has designed with Jonathan Bell of Northeastern University and Benjamin Pierce of the University of Pennsylvania. With funding from their NSF grant, “RAPID: Virtual Conference Platform,” they quickly found a way to support several forms of synchronous interaction among participants by integrating the necessary technological pieces into a single, easy-to-use web interface. “Participants were able to text and video chat with each other, formally and informally, as well as ask the presenters questions in real time throughout the conference,” says Lopes.

The Clowdr conference portal for ICSE in action. Seen here are the posters.

“In order to be geographically inclusive, the conference was organized around the concept of time bands — that is, three-hour periods where two-thirds of the world is awake,” explains Lopes. These time bands were centered on the three major oceans: Pacific (Americas, Asia, Oceania), Indian (Asia, Middle East, Europe, Africa), and Atlantic (Middle East, Europe, Africa, Americas). During the five-day conference, the platform hosted more than 300 live talks, panels and other events.

Faculty and students from UCI’s Institute for Software Research (ISR) led the livestreaming of the sessions that fell in the Pacific time band. “This was an intense and fun activity that brought a significant number of ISR members together in this time of isolation, and that gave worldwide visibility to the Institute,” says Lopes.

Faculty and students from the Institute for Software Research at UCI, leading the livestreaming sessions in the Pacific time band. From top left to bottom right: Prof. Jim Jones, Prof. Crista Lopes, Prof. Sam Malek, Forough Mehralian, Prof. Iftekhar Ahmed, Nadiv Salehnamadi, Fnu Jirigesi, Maruf Zaber, Sumaya Almanee, and Farima Farmahinifarahani.

The sessions were streamed live both to YouTube and iQIYI, a streaming service in China. “Just a few days past the conference, the conference videos already have over 25,000 views on YouTube, and reports from the Chinese team indicate a viewership on the order of 200,000,” notes Lopes. “It is incredible how much wider the reach of a conference becomes when its sessions are made available to all who are interested in watching!”

Beyond the Pandemic
Lopes plans to build on the success of ICSE, using the experience to inform future design efforts. While she hopes the Clowdr platform will support virtual conferences throughout the global pandemic, her long-term goal is to make Clowdr-based online meetings an integral part of the conference ecosystem. As outlined in the grant proposal, the idea is to better support efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of scientific research and improve diversity, accessibility, and economic justice.

“It is time for computer science and other research communities to change the way we network, which currently requires people to fly all over the world several times a year,” says Lopes. “First, this is highly exclusionary; second, the long-distance flights that underlie international conferences are unsustainable, and we must stop pretending that this is someone else’s problem.”

Shani Murray