A virtual ENAA

Every year for the last 30 years, the Portuguese Astronomy and Astrophysics (A&A) community gets together for ENAA, the Encontro Nacional de Astronomia e Astrofísica. This year’s ENAA was different, not only because we were celebrating the 30th anniversary, but also because it was (for the first time) a fully virtual conference.

I’ve attended my fair share of the latest editions of ENAA (since 2010, I think, although I missed it a few years). This year’s ENAA was special to me, in particular, because I was part of the Organizing Committee (OC).
The OC was tasked with organizing ENAA at the beginning of the Summer, a time of incredible uncertainty. It was more or less clear that a “normal” in-person meeting could not take place this year and so we decided to go virtual. Organizing a virtual conference brings up as many possibilities as it does challenges. Here is what happened and my opinions on what worked and what could be improved next year.

Digital tools for a virtual conference

The Portuguese A&A community is not huge (a few hundred people) so it was an easy decision to rely on Zoom for the presentations in the scientific sessions.

There were six sessions dedicated to different subjects in A&A. Each session was assigned two hosts who managed the Zoom presentations. The presenters tested the sound and the process of sharing their presentations before each session, to ensure everything would run smoothly. And indeed it did, as there were virtually (no pun intended) no technical mishaps during the presentations.

One critical decision the OC took was to postpone the Q&A until the end of each session, instead of having questions and answers after each talk. This worked out tremendously well, with the added benefit of keeping us within the time limits during the whole conference. Another idea that worked well was to limit the science sessions to the mornings and make the afternoons completely free. Holding meetings (virtual or not) over many hours is extremely tiring and it’s not an efficient use of the participants’ creative capacities. I’m sure that these ideas would successfully generalize to in-person meetings.

Even if Zoom is a great platform for the presentations, it is not ideal for the Q&A. We decided to use Slack instead. We created one Slack workspace for ENAA, and individual channels for each of the six science sessions. The participants were asked to write their questions to the speakers in the corresponding channel, which meant that the questions could be asked without interrupting the flow of the presentations. At the end of all the presentations, (one of) the hosts would go through the questions for each speaker. This worked well and led to very interesting discussions. But, in my opinion, it has room to improve.
First, there were too many Slack messages saying “Thank you for the talk”. So many that they ended up interfering with the messages posing actual questions to the speakers. This could have been solved by asking the participants to “react” using Slack’s emojis, for example. The hosts could write a message with the title and speaker of each talk, and you would react with a “:thumbsup:”. Also, it could have helped to create “threads” for each of the talks, to more easily separate which questions were directed to which speaker.
At the same time, the interaction we ended up seeing does have its advantages: it leads to a “lively discussion” overall feeling and hides a bit better the slightly awkward situation of a talk without questions.

Another reality for the social events

The “social” part of ENAA, in which I’m including also the poster sessions, was the most groundbreaking. Early on during the planing of the conference, I proposed that we could host the poster sessions in a Virtual Reality platform. Even in today’s digital world, this was still a bold idea, but the OC was up for the challenge.

We decided to use Mozilla Hubs to host the poster session, with four virtual rooms, each with seven posters. The participants were given links to the rooms and we created a simple guide on how to start using the platform.
Overall, the feedback was very positive. During the coffee breaks, each room had around a dozen people watching the posters and interacting with each other (we imposed a limit of 25 people per room for performance). Several participants took the time to carefully choose their virtual avatar, resulting in some very interesting scenes. The most challenging technical issue was the sound, with some participants reporting that they couldn’t use the microphone or listen to the audio inside the rooms. Although this was quite difficult to debug, in the end, it only affected a small fraction of the participants.

To create the virtual rooms, we used Spoke. The process involved asking the participants to send their posters in pdf, converting them to png images, and “placing” them in each room (not as easy as I would expect). To encourage people to visit every room, we assigned each poster randomly to one of the four rooms.

Another highlight was the social lunch, which took place in Second Life, another virtual reality platform. Second Life has a different “vibe” to Mozilla Hubs, with the avatars and the overall space looking much more realistic. One of the members of the OC, João Retrê, single-handedly built the virtual venue, packed with a dining room and a photo exhibition celebrating ENAA’s 30th anniversary. There were vegetarian options in the lunch menu and even a DJ to animate the after-lunch party.

The only issues with the virtual lunch were again the sound and the minor inconvenience that Second Life’s interface is slightly complicated.

Some conclusions

Organising this year’s ENAA was an incredibly fulfilling experience. In the midst of a complicated climate (in many senses of the word), we were able to host an interesting and fun virtual conference with truly innovative ideas.

The division of the scientific sessions between Zoom and Slack proved quite successful, especially in the way the Q&A was done only after the talks. At the same time, it’s clear that virtual reality has a lot to offer for this kind of events, especially because it can provide a conscious alternative to more traditional conferences. But it’s also clear that we only scratched the surface of what is possible to do with these platforms. I’m looking forward to future editions of ENAA and other conferences where this will be explored futher.

If you have any question about the organization of ENAA, feel free to comment below or contact me directly.