Last week, we held our first ever online conference.
TICTeC, mySociety’s annual Impacts of Civic Technology conference, was to have run in Reykjavik on 24 and 25 March, but those plans were, like so many others, scuppered by the COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, on those same dates, 180 people from 30 different countries joined us for a cut-down programme of online presentations from a selection of the speakers who’d planned to join us in Iceland.
There’s no doubt that a conference is more fun when you all assemble in the same place, make connections and maybe enjoy some socialising too. Nonetheless, we now have proof that the essential part of TICTeC, the dissemination of research and knowledge — as well as at least part of the friendly socialising — can be managed virtually. As we all seek to decrease our carbon footprints, that is important knowledge.
Other organisations are of course also looking to take their events online, and now that TICTeC is all done, several have asked if we could share some tips.
So Gemma, mySociety’s Events Organiser, has shared all the logistics below and we hope that these will be useful. As she points out, this may not be the best way to run a conference online, but it certainly achieved everything we’d hoped for in the ten days we had available to put something together.
Step 1: Making a decision
Cancelling the real-world TICTeC was a real wrench: months of work had gone into arranging speakers, putting together the agenda, booking the venue and flights, and so on. Of course, as time went on, and the lockdown became more extensive, it became clear that there really wouldn’t have been the option to do otherwise.
But we were left with a decision: should we postpone TICTeC, or perhaps simply forget all about it for this year? Or we could try to move it online.
That decision had to be made fairly rapidly, since we’d cancelled only a couple of weeks before the event. It made sense to stick to the same dates if we were going online, because people had already earmarked them as time they’d be away from their workplace.
So we decided we’d go for a virtual conference, and Gemma turned her formidable organisation skills away from Reykjavik and towards pulling this new kind of event together — all while wading through the long list of cancellations: the venue, staff flights, caterers, hotels, etc, etc.
mySociety obviously has some advantages when it comes to this sort of thing: we’ve been working remotely since our inception; and a large proportion of our staff is technically adept. That said, we didn’t build anything. The technical aspect really only came into play to help us make decisions on what existing third party platform/s we would use, so if your own organisation is not so tecchy, you may find that you can benefit from our decisions and follow this plan anyway.
Step 2: Rearranging the agenda
Once we knew we were going ahead, Gemma contacted all the speakers to find out who would be willing to do their presentations virtually, what the practical challenges were for each, and how we could get around them. For example, was their wifi signal strong enough, or would they need to rely on data? If the latter, could we pay for them to top it up?
These were significant considerations that if we hadn’t attended to them could actually have derailed the conference. In fact our intrepid keynote Nanjala Nyabola in Kenya found herself running to buy more data for her phone just minutes before her session began.
People who would have been running workshops were asked if they’d like to create a ‘fringe event’ — ie, they would do the set-up for their own online session, and we would promote it on the TICTeC agenda.
We decided not to try and run two full days, as that is a long time for anyone to sit in front of a screen. Instead, we scheduled the line up from 1pm to 5pm GMT each day, which also fitted in with a wide range of timezones.
Timezones played a part in the practicalities of putting together a schedule, too, with speakers from countries from Taiwan to South America — obviously we didn’t want to be asking anyone to have to make a presentation at three in the morning their time! Here’s the final line-up.
Step 3: Deciding on and setting up the tech
You’ve probably seen the jokey meme going round suggesting that Zoom, the online conferencing platform, was actually behind the pandemic — they certainly seem to be getting a lot of custom from it, and we have to admire how they’ve coped with the increased capacity.
We, too, decided to use Zoom, as it had been recommended by a few people we trust. Zoom isn’t entirely frictionless — you have to set up an account and it prompts you to download a piece of software before using it the first time — but it’s robust and did pretty much everything we wanted it to.
Additionally we used Slido, which allows people to submit questions and then everyone can vote for the ones they most want to hear the answers to. We’d seen this used to great effect by Audrey Tang who was our keynote-via-video link-up at TICTeC in Florence, in 2017.
Then finally we set up a Google Drive folder containing a document for each session so everyone could contribute to collaborative note-taking, and where we also stored speakers’ slides.
Gemma created a staff roles document ahead of the conference to brief the team. It was worth running through each simple task via a video call with staff about a week before the conference to make sure everyone understood their duties — this prevented any hiccups.
If you’d like to see the nitty gritty of the various options we went for in Zoom and Slido, see this document.
Step 4: belt and braces
Gemma got in touch with the headline speakers for some trial runs, to test how well their connection would stand up on the day.
If there was some danger that the connection wouldn’t be good enough and a speaker wouldn’t be able to make their presentation, Gemma asked them to prepare a video of their talk as a safety net.
In the event, everything was fine and we didn’t need to switch to video, but it was good to know that we had that fallback.
Step 5: promotion
Creating the event generated a Zoom URL, which we then shared with speakers.
Next, we needed to make sure that as many people as possible knew that the event was happening. We put the word out via our newsletter (with an extra reminder being sent out on the morning of the first day), and every civic tech-related mailing list or Facebook group we could think of. We also sent out scores of tweets highlighting each speaker, and a few Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram posts.
All of these communications linked to a central blog post which explained what people needed to do to participate (ie make sure they had access to Zoom, etc) and linked to the agenda. On the agenda were:
- the timings and schedule
- the links to Zoom, Slido and the Google docs
Keeping all the information in one place meant that if anything changed, we only had to edit that document. We asked everyone to share the information widely.
Mainly due to the lack of time we didn’t set up any kind of registration, such as an Eventbrite page. This had the positive effect that there were fewer barriers to joining in (and that anyone learning about the event while it was in progress, say, via Twitter, could just hop on), but it also meant that people wouldn’t receive an automatic reminder of the event starting, and that we had absolutely no idea how many people to expect.
Anyone with the Zoom meeting URL could join. Zoom prefers people to download their launcher, but we heard from a couple of sources that this isn’t necessary or particularly desirable, so we also linked to this page on how to use your browser instead.
Step 6: running the event
We always take several mySociety staff members to help run TICTeC. If you’re thinking that a virtual conference would require less manpower, that’s not what we found. We called on all of the colleagues who would have been with us in Reykjavik to help make sure TICTeC online went smoothly. There were numerous tasks: none of them was particularly grueling, but put together, they’d definitely have been too much for just one or two people to handle.
See this document for full details of everything that was going on behind the scenes while TICTeC was running.
In short, while Bec and Mark (Head of Research and CEO) were introducing speakers and running the Q&A sessions — a job requiring a surprising amount of energy — Gemma was manning a second Zoom conference, the ‘green room’, where speakers could test their connections, mics, cameras and slides before coming into the main one.
Sam, our sysadmin, was on hand in case anything failed. Myf, Communications Manager was clearing Slido between sessions and tweeting to let people know what was going on. Other staff members were ensuring that notes were being taken on the collaborative documents, and keeping an eye on Zoom chat to see if anyone needed help.
Knowing that people would be joining the event at different times throughout the two days, we kept repeating messages in Zoom’s chat about the location of Google docs, the conference hashtag, and that people should use Slido rather than Zoom to pose questions.
Slido made it easy for our two conference compères to ask speakers the most popular questions during conference Q&As. During the conference, we frequently reminded attendees in the Zoom chat to ask and vote for questions on Slido.
Step 7: sharing the event
Thanks to Zoom’s add-on allowing us to record the event, we now have videos of the whole thing, as well as a copy of everything that was said in chat.
The plan is to edit this into a video for each session, which we’ll then publish on our YouTube channel.
Where we have them, the slides for the presentations are in the Google Drive, as are the notes.
Step 8: look back and evaluate
So, how was it for you?
We can’t pretend we offered anything like all the joys of swinging by the Blue Lagoon or Seljalandsfoss, checking in with associates to enjoy a pricey Icelandic beer, and mingling with the friendly civic tech community face to face. Those things, sadly, are on hold for the foreseeable.
But we do think we managed to produce something special.
There really was a sense of camaraderie and togetherness in our virtual Zoom conference room, perhaps borne of all those previous TICTeCs where people have had time to build up relationships in real life.
The presentations went well. Speakers came through loud and clear; their personalities were not reduced and their points were not diluted by the online environment. It was just as easy to take in the information and to pose questions as it would have been in a conference hall. Small jokes resonated and the resulting chuckles rippled across the world.
To our relief, and perhaps to some small degree of surprise, everything went smoothly. Gemma mostly puts this down to the planning and practice we did in the week or so beforehand, but also to colleagues and to the speakers and attendees all approaching this novel set-up with a degree of trust and a willingness to try.
We’re hugely grateful to the speakers and attendees who made all of this possible. Thanks, too, to our sponsors Luminate, Google, Facebook, the Citizens’ Foundation and Balsamiq, all of whom stuck with us as we pivoted to an online event.
Finally, kudos to Gemma who really is the linchpin of all our events and whose refusal to be daunted by a vast list of admin practicalities repeatedly serves as an inspiration to us all.
We are all very much hoping that soon enough, our community can all be in the same room again. And goodness, won’t we all appreciate it.