Test Driving the Virtual #AGU Conference

December 8, 2020

We’re getting a chance to test out the virtual science conference of the future.
Or not.

This week is the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. For the last 10 years or so I’ve jumped on a flight from Detroit to San Francisco, and stayed with friends, while bus-commuting to Moscone Center to bump shoulders with 25,000 other attendees at this, the world’s largest Science conference. AGU is like Burning Man for scientists, and the atmosphere is pretty electric, with that many smart people all in one space.
You get to meet your peers and your heroes, walk up to them, ask questions, and share beers. The chance encounters in the hallways are a constant serendipitous parade.
For me, AGU is the opportunity to do sit-down interviews with a range of researchers that is unparalleled, and serves as years of raw material for video stories.

This Covid year it’s all virtual, and there’s a lot that’s good about it. But can it completely replace the face-to-face conference experience?

On one hand, at home, I have a much more comfortable chair. You don’t have to walk for blocks to get to the next session.

The virtual nature means that presentations start at a ridiculous o’clock in the morning and extend until you’ve-got-to-be kidding o’clock at night – so organizers have even built virtual jet-lag.
Another plus, you don’t have to wait till 3 for the beer, but you must bring your own.

Virtual organizers have built some tools that attempt to replicate the spontaneous serendipitous, chance meeting factor – I’ll be evaluating as I go.
It’s no small matter that the food is pretty good in San Francisco, which makes for a lot of valuable, and enjoyable, conversation time.

The carbon footprint of the event is obviously a big issue for many.
My possibly unpopular take is that we’re not in trouble because scientists do research, field work, and go to meetings. We’re in trouble primarily because we’ve been burning coal and oil for 200 years, and allowed fossil fuel companies to ignore science, even their own science, and been victimized by a climate denial disinformation campaign for the last 3 or 4 decades.
Ask yourself, if none of the scientists going to a meeting like this got on a plane, would those scheduled flights be cancelled?
We clearly have to do something about the carbon impact of flying, and there are solutions in the works, but there is so much more important low hanging fruit that needs to be dealt with, and a strong process of science research and communication is critical to deal with them.

My sense is that some people are really liking it, some not. Wondering if the conference of the future will include both options?
Obviously the virtual events are a major effort for AGU staff, so not sure if existing crew could juggle both roles.
However, if virtual access opens the conference to many more participants, that might become a larger revenue stream for organizers, so more staff could make sense.

I’m missing the chance to collar people and get them to sit still for interviews, but on the other hand, I have time to sit in on more sessions, and take notes on presenters and experts who I am seeing for the first time, and perhaps can contact later.

Lots of questions raised, I’ll be asking people about their experiences as we go. If you have anything to share on this, weigh in.

6 Responses to “Test Driving the Virtual #AGU Conference”

  1. jmmirsky Says:

    I’ve experienced that chats, both private and to groups / everyone, can substitute for the shoulder bumping that happens at in-person conferences and meetings. In a few cases, I think chats were even better than in-person events. Try using the feature that way, if you haven’t already done so.

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    It is necessary for events to be held this way despite losing the most important factors. They are, meeting, networking, questioning and partying.

  3. redskylite Says:

    I can’t believe this one (checking calendar – yes it is 2020). In 1969 when I started a career in computing I learnt about programming languages and operating system structures in virtual classrooms hosted by IBM (UK). Never saw the lecturers in person. In my career I spent many times working through night shifts to minimize disruption to the industry I worked for. Later on in the early 21st century all international meetings at the company I worked for were virtual, without the need to expend energy in needless travel.

    That esteemed scientists, especially climate scientists need to debate this as a novel modern concept absolutely shocks & astounds me.


    Climate change: Global ‘elite’ will need to slash high-carbon lifestyles

    The global top 10% of income earners use around 45% of all the energy consumed for land transport and around 75% of all the energy for aviation, compared with just 10% and 5% respectively for the poorest 50% of households, the report says.


    There is relatively little carbon budget remaining for global warming to be limited to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.


  4. J4Zonian Says:

    2 possibilities once the COVID virus is under control enough:

    Small local groups meeting in person, connecting to others virtually.

    Once we have a low-carbon land transportation system at least people can travel to areas connected by land, which in the case of a New World High Speed Rail Network that would include scientists from 29 countries. Farther-off scientists could join virtually.

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