By Kevin Sitek
OHBM’s Annual Meeting is virtual again in 2021, following in the footsteps of 2020’s conference—but don’t expect it to look the same.
2020 was a year marked by challenges. For the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, that included quickly transitioning from the final stages of planning an in-person conference to putting together an entirely new format for its virtual meeting. In many ways, the 2020 Annual Meeting was a huge success. Understandably, though—given the short timeframe for creating and executing a brand-new conference format—not every part of the conference went off without a hitch.
For 2021, the OHBM Council sought to build the Annual Meeting on three core pillars of the OHBM community: Openness, Interactivity, and Accessibility. After months of deliberation by a dedicated task force, the OHBM 2021 Annual Meeting will run on a fully customized, open source platform designed and engineered by the Sparkle team. To help make this decision, Council created the OHBM Technology Task Force (TTF) in September of 2020. In an effort to ensure representation across the entire OHBM community, Council invited over twenty OHBM members to join the TTF, including representatives from the Open Science, Student–Postdoc, Sustainability & Environmental Action, and Brain Art Special Interest Groups (SIGs), multiple OHBM committees, and other diverse voices from OHBM’s membership around the globe.
“The goal of this group was to identify areas for improvement for the 2021 Annual Meeting, as well as to identify a virtual event platform which would meet all stakeholders’ needs for this year’s meeting,” says Mike Mullaly, a member of the OHBM Executive Office. “Over the course of several months, this group vetted various platforms via virtual demos.” To learn more about this process, we turned to TTF members themselves to hear directly about their experiences and hopes in selecting this year’s OHBM virtual platform.
The TTF looked not only at feedback regarding last year’s virtual OHBM meeting but also at other conferences. “We discussed which aspects of these meetings worked or did not work and which features we would like to incorporate into the OHBM platform,” says TTF Chair Professor Alex Fornito. “We also evaluated platforms used by other meetings that were considered to be effective by different TTF members. We then shortlisted different platforms and vendors, encompassing a broad range of open source and commercial options and met with reps for several of them.”
And TTF members came with strong, detailed expectations for the platform vendors. According to TTF member and Student–Postdoc SIG Social Chair Dr. Elvisha Dhamala, the ideal platform “enables real-time conversations and reactions to presentations. It has features that facilitate spontaneous and random interactions and conversations. It has an intuitive user interface that is easily manageable and navigable.”
Finding a vendor that could do all of these things (and more!) turned out to be easier said than done. Alex explains, “We quickly learned that there was no single platform that could do everything we wanted to the level that we desired. We had to make trade-offs.” For instance, some of the platforms that were considered had great search functionality and discoverability but couldn’t incorporate social interactions or work seamlessly across time zones. “In the end, we had to focus on identifying a platform that could do a good job of our priority features, while also having the potential to further develop other features in coming years.” Given the uncertainty of the past 18 months, flexibility will be an important feature moving forward.
Ultimately, the TTF settled on the Sparkle platform. Alex acknowledges that, “In many ways, this is a risky choice; Sparkle was originally developed for online concerts and I believe that we are the first scientific conference to take place on the platform.” Yet, the Sparkle team ultimately won over the TTF.
"Having reviewed in detail many different dedicated conference platforms, the TTF was nearly unanimous in their support for Sparkle.” Mike agrees. “We were looking for a vendor that was offering something completely customizable, open-source, and would improve social interaction. Sparkle was by far and away the front runner in this regard.”
There were a few central tenets that the TTF found attractive in the Sparkle platform. Most crucially, Sparkle demonstrated that virtual conferences could still be highly interactive, serendipitous, and fun. “While OHBM 2020 successfully presented the scientific content for the meeting, it lacked the features needed to socially interact with one another,” explains Elvisha, “whether that’s through mini one-on-one conversations about the ongoing presentation or in spontaneously formed small groups during a happy hour.” This year, the Sparkle platform “enables real-time conversations and reactions to presentations. It has features that facilitate spontaneous and random interactions and conversations. It has an intuitive user interface that is easily manageable and navigable.”
An early prototype of the platform's main map, showing various conference locations, sponsor visibility, and chat functionality. Specific stylistic elements and functions will likely be updated before the conference.
Secondly, the Sparkle team is fully dedicated to open source development: OHBM contracted Sparkle to build the conference platform, but the platform’s source code itself is open source. This means that OHBM can use the conference infrastructure beyond OHBM2021 and continue building in new features and technology. Indeed, “the Sparkle team was very willing to work with us to extend the platform and develop many of the essential features we required,” says Alex. “We did not encounter this openness with many other platforms.”
Finally, Sparkle understood our community’s need for accessibility and inclusion, working with the TTF to incorporate automatic text captioning and intuitive design elements. At last year’s conference, TTF member Professor Tilak Ratnanather used his own speech-to-text software during talks and poster presentations, but it was an imperfect solution to a very real problem. “Not having to think about this will make me more relaxed and focus on science.”
A page dedicated to OHBM SIGs is just off the main map. This is an early prototype—specific features unique to each SIG will be added for the conference in June.
However, as the meeting approaches, there are still a few high-priority items that OHBM and the Sparkle team are working on, including global accessibility. Testing is currently under way around the globe and Zoom has been integrated wherever possible. However, individuals concerned about the ability to connect to the Sparkle platform may try connecting via VPN and a list of Zoom links for the meeting will be available from the Executive Office upon request.
In addition, while real-time speech-to-text technology is advancing rapidly (for instance, 2020’s star app, Zoom, recently made live captioning an option for institutional accounts, and Google Chrome can now do live captioning automatically), in practice there are still significant limitations, especially for speakers with accents that the software wasn’t trained on, as well as for fast-paced, jargon-filled presentations. (We’re sure you can remember one or two of these.)
So while the conference platform is still being optimized for the meeting, TTF representatives from across the OHBM community are helping guide the platform’s development. And, according to Mike, OHBM "will be sending out a survey during the meeting (as we always do) looking for areas of improvement and member feedback" to improve the experience for the next meeting—whatever state that will be in.
Overall, excitement about the new platform is palpable across the board. Elvisha sums it up best: “The lack of space constraints and the endless features that Sparkle has really enables us to facilitate multiple activities simultaneously so we can cater to all interests and host a more inclusive social experience. I’m really excited about Sparkle and I can’t wait for the OHBM community to experience all that’s planned for the 2021 conference!”