On Hybrid Conferences

Conferences offer us a platform to disseminate the latest research, connect with our peers and get exposed to new ideas. Normally, when organizing a conference, we only need to accommodate and plan for one audience. Traditionally, the audience was purely on-site, and during COVID, it was purely online. However, we believe that in the future, planning a successful conference will need to accommodate both on-site and online audience members.

Why Host a Hybrid Conference?

The answer is simple: to inclusively bring the entire AutoML community together. However, even with COVID mostly contained, several issues remain with conditioning the publication of one’s papers on in-person attendance:

1.Visa issues: Depending on the conference location, some attendees will face visa issues. Even if a prospective attendee applies for a visa many months in advance, it may not be granted in time due to uncontrollable circumstances. For example, last year, dozens of participants could not obtain a visa for the US within a few months, and one participant even received their visa appointment at the US embassy an entire year (!) later. While it is easier to obtain a visa for this year’s host country of Germany, even Germany requires citizens from 107 different countries to obtain visas before entering.

2.Carbon footprint: Traveling multiple times a year across different continents undeniably increases one’s carbon footprint. Offering an online element to a conference makes it easier to keep a low carbon footprint.

3.Personal Accommodations: Not every attendee may have the same amount of flexibility to travel far away. For example, conference dates may be outside of school holidays, and thus researchers with children may not be able to participate. Furthermore, international travel is often very expensive, disproportionately affecting some attendees.

Last Year

The first AutoML conference, co-located with ICML 2022 in Baltimore, was originally very much planned as an on-site event. However, in the later stages of planning, due to interest from over 60 virtual registrants, we needed to add online elements. Next to streaming all plenary content, we also held an online poster session in GatherTown one week after the in-person conference, to allow engagement with authors. While this online poster session addressed one of the academic components of a conference, other elements, such as social activities, unfortunately fell short. While we expect that the in-person experience will necessarily remain better, we strive to reduce the gap this year by planning ahead to accommodate our online audience.

Components of a Conference

The two key benefits of attending a conference are academic and social. For academic, we need to ask ourselves two questions:

  • Will the attendee learn something (e.g., a completely new topic, or deepen existing knowledge)?

  • Will the attendee be able to establish academic relationships (e.g., research collaborations, hiring, even funding)?

For the social component:

  • Will the attendee meet both new and familiar faces non-academically?

  • Will the attendee enjoy the experience (e.g., tourism, food, nightlife) of traveling to a new location in the world?

To understand how to best answer these questions, we look to the past for inspiration.

Landscape of Virtual Conferences

The very first virtual conference right after the COVID-19 outbreak was ICLR 2020. It set the baseline for virtual conferences, by setting up a virtual site as a database to host papers and videos for registrants, and then eventually to the general public. Talks were also live streamed and recorded. This setup eventually became the standard for almost all conferences (physical or virtual), such as the latest NeurIPS 2022.

One issue back at ICLR 2020, however, was that attendees could only see papers they directly searched for, and furthermore could only interact with authors via explicit Zoom calls when both parties logged into direct links at the right time. This removed one of the key benefits of a physical conference: to allow attendees to stumble upon new works they would not have seen otherwise.

Later conferences, such as NeurIPS 2021, proposed GatherTown to solve this issue, in which the act of walking around and viewing posters was simulated by avatars in a retro-like game. This idea was upgraded to a hybrid variant in CoRL 2021 in which web cameras were set up in the physical poster room to allow physical attendees to talk to virtual authors, and vice versa.

For social activities, most workshops also used GatherTown in various ways. For example, ICAPS 2020 used the platform to host multiple activities, such as a get-together, a virtual bar, a scavenger hunt, and a diversity event.

Our Hybrid Plan

While the conference is still many months away, we want to plan ahead and present ways to improve the online experience. To ensure the online audience is as fully integrated as possible, we are introducing the concept of Online Experience Chairs. The role of these chairs is, as the name suggests, focussed on getting the best online experience for our hybrid participants. As such, these chairs will focus on, and evaluate, all the issues that come up with organizing a hybrid event. For example, while GatherTown is the de-facto platform for presenting posters, one could argue that it may be suboptimal for other types of interactions. Other platforms allow much more direct messaging to specific participants, and there is indeed already a dedicated slack channel for the AutoML community that could be used. The online experience chairs will pay close attention to needs of the event to decide what the best platform for this hybrid setup is.

Hosting enjoyable social events is another important issue. The online experience chairs will closely interact with our social chairs to explore possibilities for integrating some social activities between on-site and online participants; we would like to avoid the failure mode of having two completely separate events.

Having different time zones is another common issue, especially across different virtual attendees. We hope to allocate virtual attendees to present at poster sessions that best fit their time zone. Furthermore, we could also align social events to roughly different time zones (e.g., Americas, European, Asian). To ensure planning works across different time zones, we have four online experience chairs from different time zones.

All together, the online experience chairs are very excited and motivated to tackle this important issue and hope to set a new model for future hybrid events. To be able to incorporate feedback and needs from the community as early as possible, we are actively seeking feedback and suggestions from potential online but also on-site attendees. For these, please contact online-exp-chair-2023@automl.cc and general-chair@automl.cc!

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