QCTIP2020 – virtually seamless

Our Quantum Computing Theory in Practice conference was very different this year. With the world turned upside down by the global pandemic, we have all had to adapt and rethink how we live our daily lives. With a fully remote team, and no one able to travel, QCTIP2020 became a fully virtual event.

542 registrations, 22 talks, 60 posters, and 4,701 slack messages later, we reflect on our experience of running a successful virtual conference.

1. Keep it simple

We used only two platforms to deliver the event:

Zoom – to broadcast the talks

Slack – for Q&A to speakers, the poster session, and general interaction among participants

The talks were broken down into ‘sessions’, with four sessions a day, with one to four talks per session. All of the talks were delivered live, which meant we had to take extra care with time zones for our international colleagues. Despite this, engagement was excellent with a maximum live audience size of 242, averaging at 158.

Ilana Wisby, CEO of Oxford Quantum Circuits, as part of the hardware panel in session 2

All communication outside of the talks took place via slack. There was a separate channel for each talk where the audience could submit their questions to the speakers. This worked remarkably well as it made it easy to have focused and meaningful discussions around each topic. Most of the speakers hopped on to the slack channel after their talks to answer a few extra questions. In total, 75% of registrants used the slack channel. We received many comments from the feedback survey hailing slack as a great method for managing Q&A to speakers and for communicating with each other.

a snapshot of the #posters slack channel
Slack was also used to host the poster session; participants uploaded their posters into a dedicated channel, some with accompanying links to a short introductory video to add a more personal touch. This method definitely had some plus points – presenters didn’t need to repeat themselves and viewers could go back and view as many posters as they wanted in as much detail as they liked. There wasn’t as much interaction as we would have liked here however. There were a lot of posters to get through and also, no accompanying wine, although – that was at the participant’s discretion!

2. Be crystal clear

Not only did we face the challenge of no physical participants, but also, a fully remote team meant we all had to work behind the scenes like clockwork despite being spread across the UK.The key was to make sure everyone involved knew exactly how the event would work. For the audience – straight-forward instructions in the programme, a clear code of conduct, and zoom links posted again in the corresponding slack channels just ahead of the talks. Behind the scenes communication was also critical. We held practice webinar sessions for the speakers to ensure smooth transitions between talks. This all helped to make QCTIP (pretty much) hiccup free.Equally important however, was ensuring that everyone in the Riverlane team knew their role inside out. We had webinar hosts and co-hosts who would guide the speakers on how the sessions would take place, slack moderators to ensure everyone was using their real names, and session chairs to introduce speakers and lead the Q&A. We also had a nominated ‘participant’ to view each webinar from an audience perspective and report back anything that wasn’t quite right. It was vital that each person was fully briefed on what they needed to do and how, and were able to practice their roles, which leads us on nicely to…

3. Practice, practice, practice!

Whatever platforms are used, be sure to test out the tech. In the week leading up to the event, we set up many practice webinars and worked in teams to run through the logistics, as many times as we could fit in. For risk management, we carried out some ‘what-if’ scenarios to make sure that we were as prepared as possible for any potential disasters. For example, how to deal with potential “trolls”, what to do if a speaker hadn’t called in at the planned time, or arranging back up if one of the team’s internet went down. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst!

4. Make it fun!

Three days is a long time to keep an audience engaged, especially when there are many distractions of being at home. We were all in an odd and challenging situation, and it was actually quite heart-warming to see the pictures of the ‘view outside my window’ posted in Slack. We were treated to views of sunny Greece, a not-so-sunny Spanish coastline, German lakes and plenty of gardens filled with flowers. One participant even posted a picture of their evening meal as a nod to the lack of conference dinner! There was obviously a lot missing from real human interaction. However these moments at least filled some of the space, and reminded us that we are all in this together.

In summary

There were many surprising successes from QCTIP and several methods that can be used in future non-virtual events, namely using Slack for Q&A, and for posting talk slides and talk recordings. There is also a lot to be said for the positive environmental impact of zero travel, which is certainly something to ponder.As QCTIP2020 was fully virtual, of course, some aspects of the conference could simply not be replicated as successfully as a face-to-face event (or at least not yet!). There was definitely room for more spaces for informal interactions amongst the audience, whether involving break out chat rooms, video calls in small groups, or just a coffee break slack channel. Another suggestion from survey feedback was to encourage Slack users to fill out their profiles with a short bio, so that participants could find out more about each other and find common ground to discuss. 
Given the restraints, however, QCTIP was largely successful. It was wholly enjoyable to deliver and to watch how participants engaged and reacted to the talks, and with each other. We want to thank everyone who was involved, who all made it such a gratifying and fascinating experience We are looking forward to passing the baton on to Bristol University, who will be hosting the event next year. We hope to see many of you in person next Spring 2021!