How Did We Move Supercomputing Frontiers Conference Online – Interview with Marek Michalewicz

Everything started with the Mobile World Congress that was supposed to take place in Barcelona at the end of February. After exhibitors pulled out, it was impossible to hold the event. Right after, there was a domino effect. In essence, giants like Facebook and Google canceled their huge events, other key players (such as Microsoft, Adobe, Salesforce) postponed their conferences or transformed them into online events held on video conferencing platforms.


Jakub Zieliński: How was it with your Supercomputing Frontiers Europe conference? Why did you decide to move the event to the online world?

Marek Michalewicz, PhD: It was a quick decision. The conference was supposed to take place from March 23rdto March 25th. On February 17th,ICM organized an open seminar about our multi-prong involvement in Coronavirus studies, so we were aware of the imminent difficulties ahead of us. There were no cases detected in Poland then. At the Organizing Committee meeting on the 6thof March, we’ve decided to turn the conference into a 100% virtual event. So, we’ve only got just over two weeks to arrange everything.


Have you ever organized an online conference?

No, not a conference, but we’ve had substantial experience with online, remote collaboration projects. From 2014, we’ve been building a global scale concurrent supercomputer infrastructure called InfiniCortex. It works simultaneously on four continents and is located in seven countries, connected with ultra-fast 100 Gbps InfiniBand. The project required tight coordination between over forty entities around the world, including universities, the US Department of Energy Research Labs, and various technology vendors in Australia, Asia, the USA, and Europe. We’ve demonstrated InfiniCortex at Supercomputer Conference for three consecutive years, starting from 2014. Thinking of a global online conference was a quite natural next step for us as well as a different experience.


So, the decision was made. Did you know from the start what you need to do in terms of technology to organize your conference entirely online?

We knew several online conference and webinar systems, but in the online world, they demand extra features. First of all, it must be stable, robust, and allow multiuser participation. When I speak of multi-users, I mean hundreds of participants who must feel that they are part of a live event.


What were the features you were looking for when it comes to hosting your event? What were your key factors in choosing a webinar software?

Ease of use – both on the side of the organizer, and especially the participants – the speakers and the live audience. The most critical part of the organization was to keep the flow of talks and to secure tight scheduling of consecutive parts of the program. The system had to be simple to enable this.


Long before the virus outbreak, you have invited lecturers from all over the world – US, Japan, South Africa, Germany, and Poland. Was it difficult to convince them that they were about to give their speeches virtually?

Surprisingly, not! It was incredible how cooperative everyone was. Out of over twenty keynotes and invited speakers, and over twenty contributed authors, not a single person refused to participate in the entirely new format of the conference. That was very heartening. What was also quite surprising, not a single sponsoring vendor withdrew its support of our event!


Learning new software is usually a challenge. How long did it take to get familiar with the ClickMeeting webinar platform?

Well, there are two sides to this. First one – we’ve got excellent, talented, and dedicated staff at ICM, so it was a simple matter for them to master the platform in a day or two. But it is a very friendly system, which can be learned fast by almost anyone.


Did you have to learn or develop any other new skills to move your conference to the online world?

Not at all, but as I said, our ICM staff is a top-notch team.


You needed to provide training sessions for all lecturers scattered worldwide. How did it go?

It was a non-trivial logistics task since we’ve had to organize several sessions to fit the training schedule to global time-differences and very busy schedules of our prominent speakers. However, when we’ve got everybody on board, and the sessions ran smoothly. It required about 15 minutes per person to present the functions of the presenter’s interface.


What was crucial to take care of in terms of preparation before the event?

Keeping time and sticking to the tight schedule. We’ve put an ushering system in place, where we’ve had few alternative channels of communications, like mobile phone numbers, chats, email, to keep contact with each speaker who was scheduled next in the program.


Day one. You are launching the Supercomputing conference in the digital stratosphere. More stressful than an onsite event?

Definitely yes. In the ordinary event, we would expect not more than 300 people, and mostly from Poland. In the case of online event, we tripled the number of attendees and opened it to the entire world.

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In the case of online event, we tripled the number of attendees and opened it to the entire world.


The conference lasted for three days. How will you remember it?

It was a break-through in many aspects. In terms of format, we’ve moved from a usual event to the virtual space. In terms of accessibility and sharing, it became a fully open access event. It also reached further out than any of the previous five conferences. It also proved worthwhile to sponsors – since the reach was much wider than a local conference.


It also reached further out than any of the previous five conferences.


What ClickMeeting tools came in handy during a conference?

The ClickMeeting system was significant in having a successful conference. All necessary features were there, the system was stable, and the quality of interfaces is excellent. I am very happy that one of my colleagues found and recommended ClickMeeting just 16 days before the conference!


“I think your decision to have a global online conference was very wise during the circumstances. Seeing somebody talk from his home from in Chicago, followed by someone from Cape Town, Namibia, Poland etc. was really great! This must be the future of many conferences, both for its time and environmental savings possibilities” – that is some excellent feedback. Here’s another one: “…congrats on a successful conference! You did a superb job responding to the circumstances and pivoting to a virtual event you provided to all” – looks like it went exceptionally well!

Yes, I am very satisfied with the sixth edition of Supercomputing Frontiers Europe as a fully virtual event. We’ve received a lot of very positive and enthusiastic feedback, and we are very grateful for that.


Any lessons you took from this conference? What would you improve if your next event had to take place online?

Online presence requires special presenter skills. In a few instances, lecturers were not using cameras, just showing their slides. That was a mistake. Even though a person speaks from a remote location, it’s very important to “be present”, to show your face, to have your eyesight fixed into a camera, and to focus on a remote and invisible listener. One must still keep contact and engage the audience and every participant! So, speaker preparation is crucial. Technology works.


Any advice for organizers of huge conferences that are considering running their events online instead of canceling them?

Don’t cancel your event! Of course, compared to our single-track, rather small conference, it will be much more difficult to run multi-track, very large session. However, with proper preparation and a well-executed plan, it is guaranteed to succeed. Plus, there are extra benefits: open, global access, much lower barrier to participation, immediate diffusion of ideas.


Don’t cancel your event!

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