For Brain Mappers around the world, the OHBM annual meeting is a time to meet, network, and learn about the latest progress across the many domains of human neuroimaging. Despite the challenges introduced by COVID19, the virtual conference formats used in 2020 and now in 2021 offer the chance to maintain contacts and benefit from many of the normal features of an in-person conference. In 2020, the COVID19 pandemic forced a rapid transition with little time or resources to enable organizers to fully realize the many social aspects of OHBM that are most beloved by attendees- the ample opportunities for talking around posters, chance hallway greetings that turn into deep and meaningful friendships and collaborations, celebratory parties that ensure you will find all your friends and colleagues to catch up and network for that job or bit of news you are seeking out. Many solutions were created by OHBM attendees, as detailed in our 2020 roundup, and these provided ideas to help shape OHBM2021.
In seeking an alternative platform for OHBM 2021, OHBM leadership, with plenty of grassroots input from the community and incredible support from volunteer leadership in the form of a Technology Task Force, took the risk of selecting an alternative open-source meeting software platform, Sparklespaces. This new platform offered the chance to robustly support social engagement while stretching to meet the demands of the more traditional meeting elements offered by competing platforms. One aspect of the decision to go with Sparklespaces was the option for our Program Committee Leadership and our Technology Task Force to work in close collaboration with the Sparklespace developers to ensure that the resulting software met our needs; unlike other providers which offered fixed packages, the Sparkle team was open to co-creating tailored features for our community. As part of this deal, we would retain access to the shared development source code for future meetings. Everyone involved was and remains very enthusiastic about this collaboration, with this year’s platform being affectionately dubbed #PlanetBrain by our Chair, Aina Puce.
For those attending OHBM2021, the start of the meeting did not however live up to expectations. A slew of connectivity problems meant that many people experienced sometimes considerable lag in accessing the symposia, poster hall and keynote talks. Here we set out what happened and how things are being rapidly resolved. Before the close of the first day, an update was provided from the Chair of the Technology Task Force, Alex Fornito:
The sparkle team and OHBM members worked around the clock to resolve these issues. We deployed a backup stream site within hours and screening room within a day - which allowed another way to watch live streams and explore screening room videos while we resolved the core technical issues. Several fixes incrementally improved performance over the first couple of days, and thankfully, from midway through the Wednesday session we saw a significant improvement in connectivity. The prime culprit - identified by Soichi Hayashi (and the Sparkle Team) - seemed to be that planet brain was bogged down by its handling of user update events, which inform different conference goers of each others’ whereabouts so as to enable a highly collaborative, social experience. As more and more users joined the platform, and moved between the thousands of different events and spaces, each user received a cascadingly large number of update notifications, causing browsers to struggle. Though the platform is well tested at volumes of thousands of users, its scalability with the combination of users, spaces (including posters), and events each being in the thousands had not been tested in combination and led the site to perform poorly. The Education Courses functions performed more smoothly because there were both fewer users, and fewer spaces and events- thus exponentially fewer user-update events.
Soichi’s temporary fix was to switch from receiving real-time events to polling user information, and so limiting the number of updates that a browser must make. This patch substantially improved the performance and user experience of #PlanetBrain’ - and a more permanent fix (requiring more substantial reworking of the codebase) is currently being implemented by the Sparkle team. On June 23rd, OHBM tweeted to inform users of the upgrade to the Poster Hall functionality and invited people to join again, offering an accompanying video to showcase the reboot!
The platform should be operating more smoothly, and is closer to the vision developed by the large team of people who worked on putting this conference together. Improvements are ongoing and the OHBM team is appreciative of everyone’s feedback.
In addition, rest assured that all talks are being recorded, so anything you may have missed can be rewatched later. If you do have comments on the process or would like to hear more from OHBM Leadership on these and other key issues, OHBM members are invited to join us at the General Assembly and Feedback Forum (Town Hall), 30th June at 9am EDT/1pm UTC (link to be sent by email soon).