Diversity, Collaboration, Inclusion: The New World of Virtual Conferences

October 14, 2020

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For full disclosure, I have been a conference junkie for over twenty years. I love travel, and the content is always enlightening. It is also a lot of fun seeing colleagues who, over the years, became friends.

This year, however, I’m staying local like most everyone; but in this bubble, I’ve been to Phoenix, AZ; Louisville, KY; Redlands, CA and Lexington, KY (twice!). I don’t want to see real conferences and meetings go away, but there are many benefits to virtual conferences as well. They require and encourage independence.

Across the nation, across the world

In my career with the National Park Service, online GIS meetings were the norm because of our geographic breadth. On any given call or meeting I could be with people in Alaska, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Washington, D.C. and other far-flung locales, even American Samoa. For a national agency, this was standard operating procedure. But what about more regional events?

For a national comparison, I searched for each state’s GIS conference. The results were mixed. Several simply cancelled their conferences, but are still hosting GIS Days and user group meetings. Others went virtual. In many states, the various meetings have always been virtual. California escaped by hosting their live conference in February before the pandemic hit.

The GeoEd conference has always been one of my favorites. Normally held in June at Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, KY, it brings together educators and professionals. Because it is free to register, people can come and go as their schedules allow. Normally there about 200 attendees. This year, it was double that. It was still great to see everyone, remote as we were, and encouraging to see so many new attendees.

On my wish list of conferences is The Society for Conservation GIS’s annual meeting on the California Coast. Scheduling prevented me from attending even virtually this year, but like most conferences, registration was free, with small fees for the hands-on trainings and workshops.

Previously I did a recap of Esri UC, so I won’t belabor it, but it was heartening to know that over 80,000 people were there. I doubt that we were all there at the same time, but to have that many people engaged in this single event was inspiring.

In August, I went to Phoenix, AZ for two hours for the PHXGEO meetup. It’s not the best time to be in the Sonoran Desert, I was advised by several locals, but from my office in Oregon I was able to hear presentations ranging from data management to open source GIS and archaeology. Most of the attendees were from the Phoenix metro area, which includes Arizona State University. However, we also had attendees from Oregon (myself) and Texas. I had the opportunity to meet people and learn things that I never would have otherwise.

The Geotech Center annually offers regional workshops across the country. Last year I only had to drive a few hours to Lane Community College to learn about story maps, ArcGIS Online, Collector and Survey 123. Unfortunately, there were no workshops close to me this year, and I was too busy for cross-country travel. Nonetheless, I attended their Remote Sensing workshop in August. Nicole Ernst instructed from Pennsylvania, and Vince DiNoto presented from Louisville, KY. There were students from all over the country. In a typical workshop we’d all be in the room together, playing with various band combinations and stretching our necks to look at everyone else’s places. Wow, I’ve never seen Iceland or Crater Lake, especially in a 5-3-2 band combination!

As always, Vince and Nicole were inspiring instructors, both informative and demanding. Unlike the other remote events, this one required deliverables from the participants. We were tasked with submitting three homework assignments. Procrastinator that I am, I did them in reverse order. Vince and Nicole led us through downloading data from USGS’s EarthExplorer, the National Elevation Data Set, and Story Maps composition.

NASA, Amy Rock and many others have produced wonderful online classes on remote sensing, so I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. My homework was nearly overdue and I needed a muse, so my beloved late mother came into the room (on her birthday!). She taught sixth-eighth grade Special Education, and was not a science person. How would I teach remote sensing to Mother, so she could teach it to her students? 

The Kentucky Area Mapping Professionals also went virtual. In July, I attended their monthly meeting along with colleagues from California, Ohio and South Carolina. Amy Rock from Humboldt State University in California gave us a great tutorial on cartographic techniques in Arc, and we learned how Charleston, SC and Dayton, OH used GST to deal with municipal issues. Most powerful was a Story Map called “Hope After Hate,” telling the story of a Holocaust survivor. (Be advised that this story map has some very graphic details of genocide.)

In September, KAMP held their annual conference, which I was planning to attend in person. One downside to regional conferences that went virtual is the time zone change. The morning sessions started at 9:00 a.m. Kentucky time, which is 6:00 a.m. Oregon time. Nevertheless, I managed to attend several great sessions.

Fortunately, the Esri EdUC in August was in my time zone, so I was able to attend almost all of the sessions. My favorite was “Generating Joy with ArcGIS Online.” It was a reminder that despite all the difficulties we are facing, geospatial technology is a powerful way to engage people, especially young ones, in solving the challenges that are before us and surely wait in the future—and a reminder that making maps is fun!

I forgot my costume!

Flexibility of attendance and affordability (many events were free), led to a geographic diversity of attendees, many of whom were attending for the first time. I wouldn’t have attended PhxGeo if I’d had to travel. Presenters may not have traveled there either. Instead, we had a rich diversity of participants from all over the country and the world. There was global cross-pollination.

Virtual social hours were a key to offering a sense of normalcy. As most of us know, a lot of deep thoughts get thrown around over a glass of wine or pint of lager. At KAMP, there were zombies and goblins and ghosts in the Zoom windows. Apparently I didn’t get the e-mail, so I dressed as… a geographer.

One thing that impressed me was that at all of these informal events, nobody talked over each other. Despite the informality, there were no “Zoom-overs.” However, there were interesting side conversations in the chat window, some public, some private. Several of these led to further discussions and interactions, and new contacts.

There is still an intangible wonder in face-to-face interaction. Teaching students online, or reading to kindergartners through Zoom, isn’t the same as being there. An overheard comment on the other side of the room could lead to new solutions and new opportunities.

In the classroom, I’ll often hear students struggling with the same problem. I can look over their shoulders, or I can have everyone pause and look at my screen on the projector. We are all in the same space. I admit, like many people, when I’m in a virtual environment I am often multi-tasking: checking e-mail, watering plants. When we are all in the same space, we are fully engaged with each other and the topic at hand.

What does the future hold?

We have no idea how long this isolation will continue, but the geospatial community has done an amazing job of adapting. I’ve been conferencing for over twenty years. I love the travel, the opportunities to learn new things, to meet new friends and connect with old ones.

This year, I’ve been to more places than I have since my days working for Esri. Conferences and meetings are a commitment for ourselves and our employers. Travel is expensive, so we feel obligated to attend every session and every optional activity at an event. Virtual conferencing gives us the flexibility to attend the sessions that we feel are relevant.

I’m hoping this new dynamic will lead to a hybrid model of meetings and conferences. Virtuality has brought thousands of people into our geospatial community that would not have attended otherwise.

However, the selectivity of attendance loses one of the great benefits of on-site meetings. Random encounters can be life changing. After GeoEd in 2017, I met Barbaree Duke, managing editor of Directions Magazine, in the parking lot, as she and the Palmers were headed to dinner. “I’m always looking for writers,” she said, and here I am, twenty articles later!


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