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Coronavirus Canceled Your Conference – Let’s Organize a Virtual Event!

By Wayan Vota on March 5, 2020

coronavirus conference

With over 95,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus COVID-19 in 76 countries and over 3,200 deaths globally, in-person events are being canceled at an accelerated rate. We’ve confirmed  over 20 conference cancellations across the international development industry, including:

This list will only grow longer as the coronavirus spreads around the world and more organizations question the wisdom of mass gatherings during a contagious disease global outbreak.

What About Online Conferences?

One good outcome of the coronavirus spread is a general question of the need for big in-person conferences where participants fly from around the world to the event, spending thousands of dollars on travel and produce copious carbon footprints.

The World Bank calculated that its Spring Meetings alone cost roughly $57 million to produce and the 12,000 participants’ travel contributes 79,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, equivalent to driving nearly 17,000 cars for a year.

With the rise of video conferencing software like Apple Facetime, Skype Video, Google Hangouts, Zoom Video, and too many chat and social media software options to list, shouldn’t we be able to recreate many aspects of in-person meetings with an online equivalent?

Our friends at TechChange are obviously confident that blended learning – mixing on- and offline learning experiences – is the future. Just look at their How to Tech Online course that shows the potential of virtual meetings for peer learning.

Let’s Create a Virtual Digital Development Forum

If you’ve read this far, I invite you to join me in thinking about how we can use the coronavirus to be at the vanguard of online events. A few of us want to organize a virtual ICT4D conference – a Global Digital Development Forum – that overcomes the number one problem of every international development event: low participation from low- and middle-income countries.

We envision a Forum where hundreds of participants from around the world engage in thoughtful keynote presentations, lightning talks, breakout sessions, interactive workshops, and solution demonstrations, using the latest interactive technologies that allow meaningful participation for everyone.

A transformative online event for international development, where travel funding isn’t a barrier for participation, we don’t need to feel guilty about carbon footprints, and no one catches the coronavirus.

Please join the conversation in the comments if this idea excites you and let’s make it a reality!

* ICT4D Conference Update: CRS says they are postponing the ICT4D Conference, not outright canceling it in 2020.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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67 Comments to “Coronavirus Canceled Your Conference – Let’s Organize a Virtual Event!”

  1. Ayo Edinger says:

    I completely agree with this Wayan. When I worked in Nigeria, a lot of people who would have benefited from the exposure these conferences give could not because of limited travel funding. And it was always a competition for who gets to go, amongst the more visible employees. A virtual conference bridges that knowledge sharing gap as more foot soldiers are able to engage.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I know that competition for travel money well. It’s not just people from LMICs who have to bargain for airline tickets – and lose out to senior, but maybe not as knowledgeable staff. Virtual would lower the admissions bar to those with stable Internet. I once saw someone present to hundreds of people in DC, from their phone in Dar es Salaam.

  2. Sybille F says:

    Great idea! Many have been wondering these days on how to convert some of the upcoming large conferences into virtual conferences with a wide spectrum of presentations and workshops etc. and also encourage people to meet and connect in ‘lunch’ and other breaktime conversations. Haven’t experienced the perfect format yet. Let’s plan for it.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Nick and Chris at TechChange have great ideas and practices for making virtual conferences engaging. We believe it’s possible to capture the magic of the informal and networking aspects of in-person convening while keeping people and planet healthy

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    Allana Nelson makes a great point: we should include local tech hubs and co-working spaces as venues for additional sessions. Helps spur face-to-face networking and improves Internet bandwidth & engagement opportunities for participants.

    • Also the universities and other education institutions. We had planned to livestream part of the ICT4D Conference at universities in Nigeria as well as other countries, as long with local tech hubs. And facilitate a Q&A time with speakers and partners for a more inclusive and active engagement…

  4. I’m totally into it! Let me know if this idea begins to take shape.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I’m thinking the London ICT4D Meetup would be a great co-convener along the lines of the tech hub idea. A way for people to gather locally and lead/participate in virtual sessions that also builds f2f networks.

  5. Sara Chamberlain says:

    Yes! So long as it’s cheap 😉

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Your question about costs is one we’re struggling with. All conferences require time, which equals money, to organize and more time to organize well. One idea I had was to charge a participation fee to those in advanced economies, who have the means (both financial and technological) to pay, but have it free for anyone joining from emerging economies. You would be someone I would hope would self-select to pay, even though you’d be joining from India, as you would have means. So what is “cheap enough” in your mind? Or would you trade payment for co-convening a group in Delhi to increase access and participation by ICT4D practitioners there?

  6. Nora Lindstrom says:

    Yes, let’s do this. Love the idea of combining online webinars with f2f meets at the local level. Maybe there are things we can learn from this conference too: https://gamedev.world/en/

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I love the global venues list on the Game Developers Conference website where people can join local gatherings to keep the face-to-face aspect while participating in a virtual event. Cool way to drive golocal attendance

  7. Peter Graves says:

    Wayan – I’m in. We should be traveling less for a variety of reasons, and new technologies make it easier to share information and meet people. So please do include me in this conversation. Thanks. Peter

  8. Irene says:

    Hell yeah! I love the idea of a more flexible conference model that allows for people to jump in and out of the talks that interest them. I acknowledge I don’t have as many barriers as others, but As a freelancer I often can’t afford to attend conferences so this would be great!

  9. Mary Florence Ngima says:

    A lot of work has been put in making these conferences up and all of a sudden the hard work has been put off by Corona Virus issue related to travel. Much as I totally agree with keeping our health first, technology has brought us together and the option of making it happen using innovative ways and means can be explored. Bring the brains of tech change together and make it happen!.

  10. Isioma Osode says:

    The present happening is only reminding us of the route all forms of education/conference/training is going with the use of digital technologies. However, it would seem some organisations are slow in facing up to this reality. Fortunately or unfortunately, the present situation is making them look that way. The earlier they adopt and adapt the better for them.

    Nonetheless, it is worth keeping in mind those who live and work in areas the digital gap is present. I would think that this is where stakeholders including digital technology organisations could help bridge that gap, by putting in place the necessary organisational and technical infrastructure. These would enable those in the disadvantaged areas to join in the conversion anywhere and anytime, and make their voices heard.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      We’re thinking that local tech hubs and co-working places could be co-facilitators to bring people together for face-to-face connections and strong internet connections

  11. Benjamin Balder says:

    Facilitation and organizing is key. And is a big investment. It cannot be bypassed by technology.

    The great thing about conferences is not just that people meet. But the way they meet and engage has been planned and scheduled for months. So once the event happens, the convergence of thoughts and efforts is very high.

    I don’t like conferences, and I think they look more and more like excuses to travel and spend company/organization money on “representation”. Many conferences market themselves with pictures of hotels, food and tourism.

    But if we want to take on this challenge, we have to be willing to put in the same efforts as conference organizers. It takes A LOT of effort to organize a conference — participants, program etc.

    I think that this can happen with the same feeling of convergence, and I think that local assemblies are key. So instead of a global gathering, we can have several local gatherings at the same time, interacting through online fora, presentations etc.

    There are already many online communities, but I especially recommend the Principles for Digital Development:


    Do you know other open forums where ICT4D people meet?

    • Ed Duffus says:

      Benjamin makes some great points.
      I think this is an opportunity to rethink the conference as a whole. We don’t want to recreate the current conference model in an online world, do we?
      ICT4D meetups seem to be going strong locally so let’s support them more and bring them together using collaboration tools when relevant and for a specific purpose, i.e. to solve a specific problem where more meetups are better than one.

      • Wayan Vota says:

        Ed, we’re thinking that local meetups, tech spaces, etc can be co-facilitators to build their connections and bring forth people, ideas, and energy into a global event.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Yes, organizing this conference with local meetups will be major effort – I’ve co-founded two major events and two local assemblies. This is a great opportunity to rethink the conference idea and make it more holistic for ICT4D folks.

  12. John Zoltner says:

    My thoughts exactly. I’m in – let’s start planning next week.

  13. John Zoltner says:

    A concrete idea: what if the many conferences that are offering refunds for attendee fees offer an alternative option to not receive a full refund? For instance, CRS’ ICT4D conference, which was scheduled to take place in April and has offered a refund within the next 10 days, would offer people who have already paid to receive an 80% discount rather than a full refund. That would make it easier to pay because scheduled attendees wouldn’t have to go through a new procurement process and then CRS might have a budget large enough to hold a great virtual conference. They already have a staff and network of partners who had planned to work for the in person conference and they already have a whole bunch of content and speakers ready to speak, so it would be much easier than organizing one from scratch. Likewise, we attendees still have the week blocked off. It wouldn’t just have to be CRS, various conference holders could get together if they’re addressing similar content. This idea wouldn’t waif conferences are only being postponed, not cancelled, and it would require sponsors to agree to commit a portion of the funds they have already allocated to the F2F conference. We’d have to figure out how attendees could stop by virtual exhibitor booth though.

    • Nora Lindstrom says:

      Perhaps we can plan something like this with CRS on Friday!

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Ooo! I really like this idea, John! I can see them using TechChange’s platform and practices with the sessions leads, who call in from tech hubs and offices that hold participation parties to bring face-to-face into a global virtual event. For exhibitors, I can see dedicated sessions just for people to visit booths, just like in real life.

      I can also see this as a 16-hour conference, with sessions starting at 6 GMT and going to 22 GMT each day, with keynotes throughout as different time zones come online or go offline.

    • Thanks, John. this is a fantastic idea! looking forward to discussing this further.

  14. Hi Wayan, send me an email, could be of interest…

  15. John Zoltner says:

    Yes, Nora, let’s talk then, but we need to move fast before the refunds are made.

    Wayan: awesome idea regarding the timetable. The timing of webinars is always one of the most difficult issues – some region always loses.

  16. Yes! Count us *in*. We could help brainstorm themes and organize a few online sessions, some originating from our country offices. For example, our Tanzania office could lead a great session on drones/locusts, having just wrapped up their Africa Drone Forum.

  17. I concurred with you, and it’s a great avenue for many Africans partners to participants and acquired more knowledge. But looking at our inner most problems here in Africa, that is source of power and internet connectivity, we may have a new problem as well.

  18. Would love to be part of our progress and learnings on this. We have several “events” that need to move forward but planning to do them ‘in-person” is difficult at this time. Coming up with a Plan B (or plan A) to do these virtually would be exceptional.

    One requirement we have, however, is that whatever technology is used it is accessible and inclusive of those with disabilities — particularly ensuring it effectively engages participants who may use one or more sign languages and interpreters. Virtual “Break-out rooms” for the meeting would also be beneficial. Thanks for your leadership on this.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Agreed on multiple virtual breakout rooms – for better accessibility and just better learning overall. We’ll also need to think through languages in general – be they spoken or signed.

  19. Rob says:

    Love the idea, interested to see where it goes. Maybe this will be the impetus to move us into more virtual conferences and events anyway that also increasingly needed for environmental impact. Might be nice to roughly calculate how much carbon wasn’t put into the air from flights based on where people are and where this conference could have been held in person.

  20. Reid Porter says:

    I’ve glanced at a few resources trending on Twitter related to remote conferences, and I’m struggling to understand the difference between a remote conference and a series of webinars. Pro – you can attend in your pajamas! Con – no one likes sitting in front of an over-long webinar all day.

    I could imagine (keyword: ‘imagine’) some nifty tool that let’s you find and circle up in a chat room with like-minded people to have a facilitated discussion, but I can also imagine the worst elements of “quommenting” leading to domination by a few. Sure, strong facilitators/gatekeepers could help manage. Any org that has experience with remote communication (i.e. good speakers/mics, good cameras, some system for hand-raising) would probably fair well, but there would be a learning curve for others who don’t have these luxuries.

    I think the idea of local in-person meetups would recover the loss of the in-person networking and social aspects of a conference (assuming we still feel comfortable with small gatherings in a few weeks), but combo in-person and remote communication is another tricky thing to manage.

    Seems like an order of magnitude larger challenge, potentially worth the time/investment, but I think the benefits for inclusivity, greater participation, etc. will evaporate for these reasons and others (e.g. the aforementioned internet connectivity, platform caps on numbers, etc.)

    Just giving my two cents:-) Frankly I’m interested to see if — when this all blows over — we realize we don’t need to travel as much as we think we do, we don’t need as many conferences as we think we do, and (most importantly) we don’t need to shake hands (a 5th century BCE innovation!) now that we know about germs!

    • Wayan Vota says:

      You make good points about not recreating the broken powerpoint webinar on a global scale. TechChange is going to use their extensive expertise to help us get to a more holistic peer learning experience, plus we’ll have local sessions to make it more blended than pure online. Yes, this will take a fair amount of pre-event training, and there will be people who need to read their slides – always are, sadly. I am hopeful though..

    • Cavin Mugarura says:

      Reid Porter, you couldn’t have put it better even if you tried. By the way video conferences have 1,000 and 1 problems. First forget people not muting, for some reasons they can never start on time, there’s usually 1 or 3 bugs that will show up on D day, even if u test a week earlier.

      There’s a Professor friend of mine who hates technology, he travelled to the UK for a conference, his presentation was on a flash disk. Ka ching, the flash disk died.

      So while we can wax about how tech can solve problems, am sorry to say but a video conference is not going to help, its a disaster on a scale not present on the richter.

  21. We would definitely be supportive of this – much of our work (Farm Radio International) is done remotely, so why not conferencing too!

  22. Khitam Shraim says:

    It is now more urgent than ever to take full advantages of technology to facilitate our daily life especially in emergency situation . It is a good idea

  23. Very interested to explore the idea and happy to think through how InterAction’s experience with remote working groups and webinars might be useful.

  24. Mitesh says:

    This is very interesting so far to read. So, what are some of the video conferencing technologies that can handle multiple chat rooms and enable interactions with presenters. I don’t think a typical zoom call or skype call would be able to handle this kind of load, right?

  25. John Zoltner says:

    The Cisco Foundation is a big supporter of ICT4D activities. Perhaps they know of a platform. 😉

  26. Al Kags says:

    I support this idea. Let’s do it,

  27. Maria Tubio says:

    In!! It makes sense I am based in East Timor with an international organization. Let me know how i can help

  28. Eyong Nkanu says:

    Am game with this innovation. Is timely. The challenge as commented earlier is about network infrastructure gaps which is not yet there in the developing economies. Nonetheless the idea is perfect.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Infrastructure issues is why we want to partner with local tech hubs, co-working spaces, and country offices to co-host events locally. This will serve several purposes: give people access to good bandwidth, promote face-to-face networking, and highlight the role of local entities in successful ICT4D innovations

  29. Will Clurman says:

    Hi Wayan,

    Checking in from Nairobi, and game to help. Lots of thoughts have been forming as our team have watched Mobile World Congress, CIES, now USAID GEC among many others all cancelled.

    Contributing a few notes from sketchwork. Accessibility is an interesting factor to design into virtual meetup space-time. With deaf colleagues on our team we notice written dialogue, via chat in whatever conferencing app, in addition to sign language interpretation, is a good way to get work done on a team. It also forms a concise transcript of what’s discussed and agreed. In regard to virtual meetup design cf. a universal design concept: when you build your building for people on the margins, your building works better for everyone.

    Second, taxonomy. The SDGs, just to take one frame of reference, are a massive and global elucidation of work to be done, with measures, dynamics (including a deadline), and resource networks of varying potential and actual capacity. Perhaps there’s a way to design a space-time meetingplace that not only convenes but also records, better than we normally do in many conferences, the evidence—at least the state of evidence—shared in the conference. Editing in that context, modes of peer review, and volunteerism would all have roles in such an index.

    Best regards,

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Two features we are working into the event from the beginning will be a live chat session for participants and recordings of all sessions for transcription and review.

  30. Shailee Adinolfi says:

    World Food Programme’s Building Blocks team and ConsenSys would like to present our latest version of the consortium governance framework for Building Blocks, and obtain folks’ thoughts on structure, consensus algorithms chosen, whether they would join, how we can improve it. Specifically, we want inputs from Humanitarian ICT4D folks!!! Let us know if this would fit in the format of what you’re planning. Thanks for leading this Wayan!!!

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Thanks for your enthusiasm, Shailee. We’ll have a formal call for session ideas shortly where you can submit this idea for inclusion in the final event. Please start thinking of a local entity (tech hub, co-working space, country office) where you could combine this with in-person discussions around blockchain technology

  31. Greg Olson says:

    Exciting discussion around a challenge that many of us face. Very interested to learn from others and share approaches that some of the facilitators of the Joint Learning Network have used as well.

  32. Eyong Nkanu says:

    Sorry I want to get clarity on mode of operation of the organization to develop infrastructure. Will the organization work with members of local tech hubs to develop network infrastructure projects? Pls put through Woyan

  33. Eyong Nkanu says:

    I work with Government organization into information technology development, so much as the idea is beautiful as a government ministry, we will love to partner in the development of infrastructure. How do we start?

  34. Cavin Mugarura says:

    Brilliant piece, now lets organize a virtual olympics, and I know some people wont take me serious but we can use augmented reality, virtual reality, blockchain and tree D printing. You know we need to fit as many buzzwords as possible and also add the most important word ~ the first , yes this will be the first virtual olympics.

  35. I’m happy to help out with the tech. Meedan is working on several projects like this already.

  36. They 2001 horror stories about online video solutions. Some of the main issues arise due to factors outside the control of video software publisher. For example each Internet service provider has 1,000 and 1 ways to configure their service. Without delving into mundane details, a common feature is a 30 seconds delay. Each ISP opens certain ports and closes others. This effort is commendable but it will hit a million bricks if ISPs are not part of the conversation.

  37. Rayson Monze Muleya says:

    This is an interesting concepts that can actually be used even beyond the Corona-virus threat. In my country Zambia for example where there is restriction of Opposition Political Parties to hold public meeting for the purpose mobilizing their members by the ruling party, I have been using Hangout Meet to help my party reach out to members in all the four corners of the country with very encouraging success results. Virtual conferencing beats geographical boundaries as you can be anywhere any time whilst in the comfort of your environment

  38. Chris Light says:

    I was leading a panel at the ICT4D Conference on Technology in Agriculture. The ICT4D Workgroup has just announced our next event on March 26th will be virtual. Love to work with you all on additional virtual events. Thanks! Chris

  39. Samaila Leeman says:

    Fantastic thoughts shared here. However, for low and middle income countries the challenge will continue to be access to high-speed internet connectivity.

  40. I am looking for both training and employment as a teleconference facilitator. I have an employment history, much of which I believe is very relevant to this kind of work.

  41. Madelynne Brazile says:

    I love this! Let me know how I can be of help to plan and execute!

  42. Alyson Hyman says:

    This is a great idea and I’d love to contribute to the thinking of the facilitators’ role and ways to ensure real connection in the sessions rather than just another “webinar” or presentation. I use a repertoire of structures that amplify inclusion, voice and creativity (www.libertingstructures.com) and we’ve been rapidly moving them into online modalities amidst COVID19. I know several folks at IH and would love to contribute to this effort.