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Open Session on Going Hybrid

A simple sketch of the outline of a hybrid car, white against green background.
The recording of the open session on YouTube, summary below.

In late November, the SIGCHI Executive Committee conducted an open session to discuss going hybrid. This session was hosted by Cale Passmore (CP) and me, and aimed at surfacing concerns and priorities around transitioning from virtual to hybrid formats, as brought up in SIGCHI-relevant conversations thus far. We then brainstormed ways in which we could address these in upcoming hybrid SIGCHI events, and concluded by asking what SIGCHI perspective we could convey to other ACM SIGs at an upcoming SIG Governing Board meeting on this topic. A summary of this session follows.

“Why are we here?”

After going over our code of conduct for SIGCHI virtual meetings, we presented our motivations for organizing this session in the first place:

This is a meeting for gathering experiences, thoughts, and potential solutions to hybrid events. It’s a way to transparently communicate to conference leadership what we’re aware of, and a request for your help in creating wholesome hybrid conference experiences. Thinking of hybrid conferences as a permanent adaptation in our circumstances, we’re here to figure out the things we need to change with how we’ve done both in-person and virtual events thus far.

People widely support events going hybrid, likely because it represents the best of both virtual and in-person worlds. Today, we’d like to unpack this further. Each attendance type offers its own pros and cons, permissions, restrictions, and long-term consequences. Each attendance type has groups it serves better, serves worse, and larger systemic factors at play. Equitable diversity requires us to sit with an uncomfortable tension where no one solution, nor both, works for everyone. What’s currently important is coming together to serve the communities within SIGCHI better today than we did yesterday, in line with SIGCHI values.

Hybrid conferences can work for more of our community because they can provide more options and opportunities for consent. No matter the number of our community who prefer in-person or who prefer digital platforms, greater options to which we can consent is a good way forward. But we need to deliver the best experience we can for the options we introduce.

Where there’s relative unity around hybrid conferences being a better option, we are seeing tensions and concerns around “how” hybrid conferences could be done. We are uncovering tensions around ways that hybrid conferences can increase some inequities while reducing others.

So, finally getting into it, we are here to:

Discuss and relate items flagged around in-person, digital, and hybrid conferences across SIGCHI, for communication to conference leadership.

Reflect what we’ve learned from the community, conference chairs, steering committee, and other EC members regarding hybrid conferences.

Jointly identify mechanisms for creating positive hybrid conference experiences.

“What does the SIGCHI community want?”

The CHI ’22 General Chairs conducted a survey last month to discern the feasibility of a hybrid CHI conference. An overview of the findings was presented by the Chairs in the town halls (Session A and Session B) that the EC hosted in October. Respondents reflected their preferences for social distancing, masks, vaccines, and on-site testing. Below is a summary of the factors that motivate our community members to lean towards in-person conferencing:

  • Experiences with online conferences have not been positive, and there is broad disbelief that such events can be done well.
  • Platforms can be hard to navigate, particularly from an accessibility standpoint, and tech support needs are not always met.
  • There is a need for networking, which is harder to do online; most research tends to take place in isolation and in-person events are the few instances where people connect.
  • There are anxieties associated with online presentations; the cost of making a mistake can seem higher when touch points are fewer.
  • Many constraints can make virtual events challenging to access/attend for some, such as time zone differences, caregiving priorities at home, institutional regulations that make it harder to get refunds.

Many prefer virtual interactions instead, for the following reasons:

  • These offer lower risk of transmission; especially for those who are immuno-compromised or caring for those who are.
  • Travel restrictions make it cumbersome for people to fly, such as on account of quarantine regulations; unpredictable in general and too much planning required.
  • Access to vaccines is not (yet) equitable.
  • Participating online is more affordable and people can stay in the comfort of their homes. More people are able to afford it around the world, more generally and predictably.
  • There is less funding available for physical conferences nowadays.
  • Environmental costs of conferences are high, with or without COVID.
  • Location-specific concerns — vaccination rates, cultural factors/practices impact the travel experience.
  • There is the belief that as a field we should be at the forefront of creating engaging virtual conferences to offset the wide range of concerns with in-person events.
  • Unclear messaging from organizations (e.g. ACM/SIGCHI) introduces delays into the planning process.

For hybrid to work well, some suggestions that have been made thus far:

  • Give people options for degrees and types of engagement, attendance, and precautions: allow them to give consent.
  • Ensure masking, social distancing, rapid-testing, vaccine mandates (with reasoned exceptions).
  • Provide information/stats on pandemic for physical sites (before and during an event).
  • Communicate clearly what precautions can/cannot be taken on site.
  • Provide support for those who might get stuck due to travel restrictions.
  • Maximize outdoor events or ensure ventilation with limited room capacity.
  • Provide access to vaccines/boosters.
  • Make lanyards available that indicate if a person is immuno-compromised and requires maintaining a distance.
  • Bridge effectively the in-person and virtual attendance.
  • Making conferences accessible overall: having accessible virtual platforms, accessible in-person arrangements (which can conflict with masking requirements for deaf/hard of hearing attendees), and making sure that the interactions between virtual and on-site are accessible.

Brainstorming Hybrid Formats

We spent 30–35 minutes brainstorming hybrid formats, where we shared a collaborative Google doc with attendees and posed the following questions:

“What values do we wish to see our future conferences embody?”

Rua Williams (RW) pointed out that “access issues at on-site components (access here is including disability, financial, and sociocultural access) cannot be excused by ‘well you can attend virtually’. There should be funds devoted to supporting attendance at in-person events for marginalized people that would otherwise be forced to choose online attendance.”

Attendees further voiced that access concerns need to be determined by those directly needing access. There is a need to ensure that hybrid events do not “become a de facto segregation of disabled or otherwise marginalized attendees” (RW). Active efforts towards anti-segregation are thus called for.

“Who are we thinking of? Ourselves? Others? Both? The Planet?”

Many diverse needs need to be considered, of people and of the environment. For example, RW stressed that “all technology involved in organizing and hosting hybrid events must be accessible. AND this accessibility must be determined by a qualified committee of ACM members who are experts in disability access. NOT simply ‘the company says they are compliant’.” They also voiced that “that there are still substantial environmental impacts of virtual conferences also and ACM should be devoting resources to concrete environmental issues beyond using hybrid as an eco-performance.”

“What are the activities we care about? Research? Networking? Both?”

We talked about networking and mentoring opportunities. Kaisa Väänänen (KV) remarked that “networking is crucial for many/most, and especially for young researchers who are trying to build their connections — this requires at least occasional in-person events,” adding that “meeting people during breaks, lunches, etc. was important for gaining new insights and inspiration, and for forming potential research collaborations.” Heiko Muller (HM) shared: “I gained many ideas from poster and demo presentations and [have] also done a lot of networking in those sessions. These seem to be the most difficult in online or hybrid conferences at the moment.” HM also gave the example of MobileHCI 2020 and “good experiences with online ‘experts’ tables with 3–7 persons at a table for an hour. People RSVP’d for the attendance at those tables and [came] very prepared with questions for ‘their’ expert. It fostered many great discussions.” Zuleima Morgado Ramirez (ZMR) offered the following analogy: “building a water supply system in community does not warrant that all will access it, if some do not know how or have no resources to buy accessories to access it” and suggested that we first ask if our graduate students feel they lack the skills to network, aside from gaining access to networking opportunities.

On the topic of mentoring, Hendrik Strobelt (HS) gave the example of ICLR and and mentioned: “We had good experiences with low-commitment mentoring sessions online. There are platforms that allow for spontaneous meetings of mid-career/senior members with junior members.” Michael Muller (MM) pointed out that “networking year-round could be possible virtually, tying into greater support for regional meet-ups, mentorship programs.” He also emphasized that virtual events would reduce costs for students and early-career PhDs; in small virtual events (like workshops), there are also good chances for networking for early-career individuals.

A key overarching question was raised by Victoria Neumann (VN) — “is the common feeling that the change needs to be from low-commitment interaction to high-commitment interaction to create networking online/hybrid?” What levels of low- and high-commitment interactions are desired?

“How do we realize conference futures that honor the above?”

It is clear that in-person and virtual conferencing offer pros and cons for different types of users. Combining them successfully into a hybrid format to address the needs of all conference attendees is a hard problem. A range of perspectives voiced are listed below.

KV mentioned the value of “well-balanced (TBD) hybrid events, with platforms that offer excellent UX (or CX=conference experience), with a strong focus on multi-faceted social interactions between known and previously unknown people (‘matchmaking’).” An unnamed attendee emphasized that presentation and networking need to be asynchronous and synchronous, respectively:

I imagine hybrid conferences with flexibility, some content will be asynchronous and other synchronous and we all need to acknowledge that reaching perfection is not possible and that satisfying all needs is also not possible. […] I suggest that all presentations are pre recorded, then bespoke synchronous sessions are enabled to specifically ask questions and network in relation to presentations. Then bespoke online rooms for networking can be enabled based on topics of interest, matching the themes of the conference. Then for those that can physically and want to attend an in person conference, they can be given a different package to what is offered online, in terms of the order of things presentation-questions-networking. Versus online, where the presentation is not tied in time with a networking time. Presentation is asynchronous. Networking is synchronous and offered at enough and varied world times to cover all time zones.

Christian Vogler (CV) remarked that “the mix of virtual and on site attendance also creates new problems that can’t be solved by accessible technology alone.” RW added, “Access doulaship between on-site and hybrid interactions must be a specific effort by conference organizers going forward.” VN suggested, for example, that “there can be a change from travel funding to funding for data packages for those who can’t afford or don’t have access to spaces with fast internet.”

CV pointed out differences in virtual and face-to-face communication dynamics that create “really hard deaf and hard of hearing accessibility problems, because for them it is all about lines of sight. These are essentially uncontrolled in synchronous virtual to f2f bridge events, and for all the experience my team and I have in running those, we haven’t found a better way than to make the f2f experience conform to the constraints of virtual lines of sight.” He mentioned that the ASSETS 2021 conference had chosen Zoom because an accessible conferencing platform that they knew of did not exist.

On the topic of geo-distributed conferences, HM shared that he had witnessed colleagues from psychology organizing local meetings that join a global conference as satellites. The down side is that this reduces in-person networking to the local region/country. CV pointed out that conference sites also need to be equipped with appropriate internet access.

Amy Vaccarello (AV) brought up the importance of bridging the virtual and in-person components in a hybrid format: “From my studies within health informatics, a new role is seeming to develop in importance and that’s the “IT Coordinator” a liaison who bridges the gap between the siloed in-person experience from the siloed virtual experience. This person should be within the in-person space but focused on connecting the virtual audience, they could possibly be a contact point for invitations to diminish the awkwardness of entering into a virtual meetups (which was previously mentioned) Essentially be the voice of the virtual attendee within the in-person conference, just like how Neha has been moderating for us here. Can interfaces within online conferences be an effective liaison or will this have to be a person?” Max Wilson (MW) added that there was someone who plays this role in his university as well.

We talked about considerations around platforms. VN mentioned that Midspace was open source and improving. CV and Stacy Branham (SB) suggested that platforms needed to address accessibility concerns before they could be adopted by our conferences. CV added that where most platforms failed was on account of providing screen reader support. On this topic, KV commented: “I’m hoping that in the next years (maybe months?) there will be new online platforms/tools that can better support the sense of communality and other conference-like experiences such as serendipitous (?) meetings. Even if we cannot fully integrate online and in-person ‘tracks’ within a conference, I believe that the online experiences can get better in the future. Still, I strongly believe that we occasionally need in-person events, and that hybrid is the best new normal.”

We talked about the costs of making hybrid work; some questions were raised although they did not really get addressed. HS asked about the “constraints for CHI in terms of financial sustainability and human volunteering to make hybrid happen.” MM asked if it was possible to downsize to support a hybrid conference structure. E.g., “do we need such a large hall? Do we need such an expensive city?” SB asked if the ACM might consider hiring experts to facilitate/reduce volunteer burden in moving to hybrid formats. A short discussion followed on considering labor costs involved in renting and buying, and which were more visible. We will return to these and other questions and considerations another day.

Representing the SIG

In the remaining minutes, we discussed the upcoming SIG Governing Board meeting where SIG representatives will come together to discuss the future of conferences within the ACM, and whether there were additional thoughts attendees wanted to have conveyed. This open session, and the summary above, will inform SIGCHI’s representation at that meeting.

A simple sketch of the outline of a hybrid car, white against green background.