I chaired a virtual conference! A how-to

Since late 2019, we have been organizing The 2020 Joint Conference on AI Music Creativity. This was going to be a union of two other ventures in similar engineering and artistic domains, namely the annual Music Metacreation workshop (MuMe), and the annual Computer Simulation of Musical Creativity conference. It was also going to be the celebratory kick-off event for my ERC project, MUSAiC: Music at the Frontiers of Artificial Creativity and Criticism (ERC-2019-COG No. 864189).

The joint conference was going to be three days featuring papers delivered at KTH, concerts at the Royal Conservatory (KMH), and social events throughout Stockholm, but the global pandemic made that impossible. So, we decided not to cancel, but go virtual. Now, how can we do that in an appealing and accessible manner? It turned out not to be too difficult, quite inexpensive, and to have several advantages.

In April, I reviewed several helpful resources on virtual conferences. Richard Parncutt’s “Virtual socializing at academic conferences” is excellent, and motivated me to spread several events throughout the day (CEST) to meet a number of time-zones. The ACM also has a great guide on virtual conference best practices. See in particular section 2.5, “Carving out mental space”, motivating short virtual sessions. Also Sec 4.2.2 “Small Conference or Large Workshop” provides some helpful logistics for the size event I was organizing.

Due to a fantastic response in terms of paper submissions, and the interest of several invited speakers, we decided to spread the conference over an entire week. The final schedule features eight paper sessions (of 105 minutes each, plus 15 minutes extra to solve technical issues), nine spotlight talks of 30 minutes each (with Q&A), two hour-long keynotes (with Q&A), and four 90 minute panels (with Q&A). The first day features two tutorials, one of which is repeated to accommodate other time zones. There is also an online exhibition of selected musical works with pieces introduced by the artists in two separate sessions. Here’s the final schedule:

To reduce online fatigue, and accommodate several time zones, I spread the events as much as possible.

Now, how to do this in a virtual format? I followed some other virtual conferences to see how they worked. And I taught a class of 300 using zoom. This led me to several conclusions:

  1. We should use zoom. It has excellent reliability and the “original sound” feature is a big plus. Furthermore, one can record sessions automatically, and even stream them.
  2. Large zoom sessions can be unruly and insecure. It would be pandemonium trying to have a number of paper presentations with questions and answers. It would also make the recording of the presentations unpredictable. So, we should limit who uses zoom.
  3. The events should be viewable by the general public, but people who register should have something extra in terms of the conference experience.

Here was plan A:

My computer in Stockholm hosts secured zoom sessions with presenters, panelists and session chairs. I stream these sessions to YouTube, which is then viewed by the public and conference registrants. In cases where video is provided by presenters in lieu of a live presentation (internet connectivity might be poor), I stream the videos using Open Broadcaster Studio (OBS, free!). Conference registrants have access to a slack workspace dedicated to the conference, which has channels dedicated to each event and each paper where questions can be asked and topics discussed.

If YouTube decided to restrict my streaming ability, e.g., detecting copyright protected material in the stream and shutting it down, then Plan B was this:

All registrants would pile into Zoom, all would be muted except for the speaker, and questions would be posed on the conference slack workspace.

A big risk with both of these plans is the degree to which they rely on “Bob’s computer”, its connection to the internet, and its operator. If the computer breaks, gets disconnected, or Bob gets COVID-19, everything could topple. So Plan C was to make everything asynchronous: authors post videos of their presentations to slack, which are then discussed in non-real-time. Fortunately, we never had to deviate from plan A.

One major benefit of Plan A is that YouTube automatically records streams, so we didn’t need to record zoom sessions and then upload. They would automatically appear in the conference YouTube channel. There is even some online editing functions within YouTube Studio that can be used to make changes. (There were some funny behaviors, however — for instance a two hour stream appearing as 5 minutes. This seemed to happen when I switched from streaming video via OBS to streaming from zoom or vice versa. To correct it, I had to download the recorded stream and then upload again.)

Another nice thing about streaming to YouTube is I could watch engagement. Below is a screen shot of the streaming view in YouTube Studio at the conclusion of a paper session.

A drawback to using YouTube is its availability in all parts of the world, e.g., China. There are other possibilities, but by the time we had realized YouTube is blocked in China, it was too late.

Running the conference on Bob’s computer looked like this:

A paper is being presented in zoom to the other authors and chair of the session. This is being streamed “Live” to YouTube, where there is about a 5-second delay. The conference Slack workspace is shown at left. (purple) The YouTube Studio page is behind in the browser. And the OBS software is shown behind at right. It was a crowded workspace, but by the end of the first day I had the mechanics down.

On Tuesday morning after a brisk bike ride to work, and 30 minutes before the first session, I opened my laptop and watched the screen go haywire. Panic ensued, and I raced through my department to find an external monitor. Thankfully, the computer was fine but its screen was not usable. After the morning session ended, I took the computer back home on a careful bike ride, and positioned it on my desk where it remained the rest of the week. I also prepared my wife’s laptop to become a backup in case mine died.

During the conference, I kept a log of useful observations and best practices.

  • ASSIGN A CO-HOST for each and every zoom session. It was in the middle of a paper session that my zoom crashed. I restarted zoom, logged into the session, and noticed there were no interruptions because the co-host’s connection continued hosting the meeting as well as the live stream. (I hadn’t realized this great redundancy before. Good work zoom!)
  • Create a backup YouTube channel for streaming in case the main one gets taken down. During the streaming of one of the invited talks, I noticed a copyright violation:

In this case it just meant restricted monetization — which we aren’t doing anyway. But perhaps several such violations would cause a shutdown.

  • Have a totally different streaming option ready to go, e.g., Twitch.
  • Beware that running a virtual conference can cause your hands to get sweaty. This can lead to all kinds of unintended pointing and clicking using a trackpad mouse. One time I meant to point and click something other than the “End Live Stream” button. The unanticipated superfluidity of the interaction almost caused disaster! So take care with every point and click.
  • Some presenters might not have reliable connectivity. So in preparation, have them create and send a video of their presentation to use instead. Send it the day before because it takes time to download them!
  • Start each live stream session with a one minute introduction video. This gives you time to check on the health of the stream and prepares the presenters to go live.
  • Create a different slack channel for each paper. One colleague thought doing this was a disaster because it makes a real mess of the slack workspace; but it turned out to be a great way to organize things and facilitate discussions. Do this before people accept the slack invite, and make all such channels added by default.
  • Use free tools wherever possible. Github pages worked exceptionally well for the website and keeping it up to date. OBS worked flawlessly. YouTube streaming had some quirks, but it worked great. Slack turned out to be great.
  • Assign chairs for each session, and have them contact the participants with instructions about the presentation. Write a template email for the chairs to use for contacting authors and soliciting videos.
  • Give registration cost waivers for all paper reviewers that deliver, as well as all invited speakers.
  • When using EasyChair as the chair, DO NOT add conflicts of interest. Otherwise you cannot make assignments and decisions for papers hidden from your view.
  • Here are some tasks to delegate to students helping:
    • Confirmation of dates and times with all invited speakers and session chairs. Also, collecting biographies and abstracts from invited speakers. And sending connection details for presenting.
    • Creation of calendar invites to all conference events and distribution to registrants. (Make this adaptable to any time zone.)
    • Creation of slack workspace and its channels
    • Using social media (e.g., tweets) to publicize events during the conference
    • Updating the conference website with links to videos soon after each event ends, and adding relevant text to each video, including funding acknowledgments.

Reflecting a week after this event, I am totally satisfied with how things worked, and would happily do it again. Renting a presentation room, hiring A/V assistance, printing conference materials, and catering, would have required registration costs of about €200 pp for about 40 paying attendees. Then the cost of having nine in-person invited spotlight presentations, two keynotes, and two concerts, would have made that price rise far higher. Instead, we were able to do most of this (online exhibition instead of live-streamed concerts) at a very small registration fee of €25 pp. The remaining costs were covered by the ERC project MUSAiC: Music at the Frontiers of Artificial Creativity and Criticism (ERC-2019-COG No. 864189).

Also clear from the conference YouTube channel is that there has been continued viewing of the presentations:

We can see when the conference occurred, but there have been about 150 views each day since the conclusion.

Thinking of the future, I think hybrid conferences are the way forward. Having remote presentations opens up a lot of the world to attend and participate. It greatly reduces expense and the consumption of resources. Networking in person is of course one of the most important aspects of real-life conferences, but great impressions can be made just as well via remote presentations and discussing work in online forums. The next time I organize an in-person conference, it will certainly include remote presentations and attendance.

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