SIAM News Blog

The Continued Evolution of SIAM Conferences

By Richard Moore

The 2022 ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms (SODA22)—scheduled for January 9-12 in Alexandria, Va.—will be SIAM’s first in-person conference since the onset of COVID-19. SODA22 and its joint meetings—the SIAM Symposium on Algorithm Engineering and Experiments, SIAM Symposium on Simplicity in Algorithms, and SIAM Symposium on Algorithmic Principles of Computer Systems—will actually be hybrid, with both in-person components that allow vaccinated participants to gather in Alexandria and a virtual option that enables participation from anywhere in the world.

SIAM has committed to offering all of its conferences in either hybrid or virtual format through the 2022 SIAM Annual Meeting, which will take place in Pittsburgh, Pa., in July along with the SIAM Conference on the Life Sciences, SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education, and SIAM Conference on Mathematics of Planet Earth. This decision, which acknowledges continuing impediments to international travel and concerns about crowded conference venues, also broadens participation and access for those who are not able or ready to attend in-person gatherings. In addition, it presents an opportunity to add to the wealth of information that stems from SIAM’s forced experiment with virtual formats.

What did we learn in 2021? First, virtual conferences have real value. We know this from both the surprisingly high conference registration numbers throughout the year and positive survey responses. Nine out of the 11 virtual conferences in 2021 broke previous registration records for their conference series, and all of the attendance numbers were higher than each conference’s preceding iteration (increases ranged from one to 93 percent). Not counting the 2020 SIAM Annual Meeting—where free registration meant that a number of attendees spent little to no time on the platform—the new high-water mark for registrations at a SIAM conference is 2,542 at the 2021 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, followed closely by the 2021 SIAM Annual Meeting (co-located with the SIAM Conference on Applied and Computational Discrete Algorithms, SIAM Conference on Control and Its Applications, SIAM Conference on Discrete Mathematics, and SIAM Conference on Optimization) with 2,202 registrants. Many of these virtual registrants are based outside the U.S. (see Figures 1 and 2). Between 78 and 96 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the conferences’ technical programs were excellent, thus demonstrating that the quality of information exchange at SIAM conferences did not suffer in a virtual modality.

Figure 1. The top countries represented among registrants at recent installments of the SIAM Annual Meeting, held in person in 2018 and virtually in 2020 and 2021. Figure courtesy of the author.

Second, opinions vary widely as to what constitutes a good virtual platform. When we embarked on the exploration process for a new platform vendor in fall 2020, we included stakeholders from SIAM staff, SIAM leadership, and the organizing committees of upcoming conferences so that a variety of voices could express their priorities. We sought a single platform with which SIAM staff could become familiar and build robust practices to support, but one that had sufficient flexibility to accommodate the many different conference variations preferred by SIAM’s Activity Groups and conference steering committees. The months-long process of multiple vendor calls and walkthroughs yielded the 2021 platform powered by vFairs that many readers have experienced.

Overall, the vFairs platform has rated well. With the exception of SODA21 (the first conference on the platform), between 63 and 80 percent of survey respondents indicated that their experiences with the platform were positive or very positive. We quickly phased out features that were sources of irritation—like leaderboards and gamification—and adapted our procedures to promote increased levels of interactivity during sessions, including use of Zoom’s more egalitarian meeting format rather than its tiered access webinar format. We augmented virtual posters to allow for multiple media types—from the usual PDFs to video walkthroughs—and poster presenters had access to a video room in which they could engage with small groups, just as they would in person. We also appended a Gather space, complete with games and a virtual beach, to each conference to enable more spontaneous interactions. In some conferences, the Gather space was bustling with activity; in others, it was a ghost town. Fostering random conversations such as those that commence in the coffee line is a tall order for an online platform.

Figure 2. The top countries represented among registrants of recent installments of the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering, held in person in 2017 and 2019 and virtually in 2021. Figure courtesy of the author.

Finally, we learned that we can do better. The last two years have forced us to distill, adapt, and reinvent almost five decades of in-person conference experience, and the process has not been without hiccups. Readers will notice that I excluded SODA21 from my discussion of survey results on virtual platform satisfaction. This is because a woeful 38 percent of respondents expressed a positive or very positive experience with the platform. Since SODA21 took place just a few short months after we signed our contract with vFairs, we needed to move quickly to set up the platform and communicate with all participants. We also wanted to accommodate the organizers’ request for pre-recorded talks from all contributed speakers, who then had to record and upload their talks during a very short window over the holidays. Registrants consequently had little time to access the recorded talks before the live sessions; survey scores suffered as a result, and we realized that adding functionality does not translate to additional value without the necessary time and planning to bring users along for the ride.

What does all of this mean for hybrid conferences in 2022? Because adaptation is a healthy exercise, we are moving to a different vendor: Pathable. This new platform is much more mobile-friendly but still allows browser access, adapts automatically to local time zones, and interacts seamlessly with calendar apps — all while offering easy access to Zoom meetings that will now be connected to onsite conference rooms. Pathable will therefore serve as both a conference scheduling app for in-person attendees and a virtual conference platform for online participants. Speakers and attendees will be able to partake in sessions from either the venue or their own homes. The 2022 SIAM Conference on Analysis of Partial Differential Equations and SIAM Conference on Imaging Science—both originally scheduled for Germany in March—will be fully virtual and take place on SIAM’s vFairs platform.

As for our plan for future meetings once COVID-19 is safely in the rearview mirror, I have learned to avoid making lofty predictions. I hope that our newfound experience with hybrid conferences allows us to continue increasing global access to SIAM meetings and networking opportunities. For now, I’m just looking forward to seeing friends and colleagues in person again.

Richard Moore is the Director of Programs and Services at SIAM.
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