Informatics Professor Crista Lopes Co-Chairs Task Force on Best Practices for Virtual Conferences

April 15, 2020

The list of cancelled events amid the current coronavirus pandemic is long, but while some are choosing to postpone rather than cancel, others are going virtual. In trying to help colleagues move conferences online, it quickly became apparent to Informatics Professor Crista Lopes, who has been involved with online conferencing for years, that a set of guidelines was needed to ease the transition.

“In late February, I started being contacted by conference organizers to help them think through alternative online plans,” she says. “I realized this needed a more systematic effort, because thousands of conferences will be affected, and very few people have ever been to a virtual conference.”

So, Lopes approached a close collaborator, Benjamin Pierce of the University of Pennsylvania, who in turn approached a council member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Jeanna Matthews of Clarkson University. Working together, they sent a proposal to the ACM, and the ACM then set up a Presidential Task Force on virtual conferences, led by the three researchers. Collaborating with a group of technology experts, including UCI’s Informatics Professors Emeriti Gary Olson and Judy Olson, the task force produced a useful set of guidelines: “Virtual Conferences: A Guide to Best Practices.”

Creating a “How-To” Guide for Online Conferencing
The guide opens with the following scenario, which is being played out daily all over the world:

Our conference organizing committee just decided to switch our physical conference to online. But the conference is supposed to start in three weeks, and none of us have ever even been to a virtual conference, much less put one on! Where do we start???

This pressing need of countless conference organizers served as motivation for quickly pulling together the necessary information. “We set a very aggressive timeline for delivery,” says Lopes. “The energy around the creation of this guide was a prime example of how good things happen when institutions and people, driven by a sense of urgency, come together toward a common goal.”

Building on a blog post Lopes wrote in March, and borrowing from a list of resources she and Pierce had compiled, members of the task force added to the content according to their expertise and experiences. “The members of the task force, including ACM officers, were amazing,” says Lopes. “Additionally, we all reached out to other people who we knew could offer good advice, too, and they were also amazing!”

The result is a well-organized set of best practices and immediately implementable options for conference organizers who have been left scrambling in the wake of COVID-19. “Conferences are events that bring people together over topics that matter to them; they play an important role in building and maintaining scientific communities, and in disseminating work,” explains Lopes. “Virtual conferences, at least this year, will keep the conversations going.”

Encouraging People to Embrace this New Norm
Lopes hopes people take this experience and embrace virtual conferences as part of the new normal. While she acknowledges the significance of physical meetings, she wants people to rethink their purpose and frequency.

“Everyone knows about the benefits of conferences, but they have a very high carbon footprint and therefore are seriously unsustainable,” she explains. This is something many have pointed out, including Lopes and her colleagues (see “Conferences in an Era of Expensive Carbon” in Communications of the ACM).

“COVID-19 is a strange and unfortunate turn of events, but it’s time people really wake up to what climate scientists have been warning us about,” she says. “We must flatten the other curve, too, the Earth’s temperature; there is no vaccine for that.”

Shani Murray