This is the fourth post in our “Executive Perspectives” series where we talk to association executives about opportunities and challenges the pandemic presented, how they’re creating value for their members and what lies ahead.
In this interview, we sat down with Jay Brodsky, Chief Digital Officer for the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
For the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) global community of more than half a million people, Earth is at the heart of everything they do. Scientists who study the physical processes behind water, energy, natural disasters, climate, the ocean, solar system and beyond are naturally passionate about, and committed to, protecting those resources.
So long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced conferences across the globe into a virtual format, AGU was exploring how technology could help provide scientists the opportunity to continue to share their research with a reduced carbon footprint. Since 2014, experiments had been undertaken to build a hybrid meeting, with a formal adoption of this strategy in 2016.
Driven Faster Down the Same Path
“In February of 2020, our president reiterated a strong desire to put an emphasis on making our annual meeting content available online. We are a complex global organization, and between the cost, logistics and emissions involved with physical travel, it just made sense for us to keep moving in that direction. Little did we know that soon, it wouldn’t be an option.”
By June, AGU had announced that their December conference would be entirely virtual. As an organization, they were forced to move up the timeline for what they assumed would be a slow transformation over several years, creating an entirely new way of doing things in just six months.
This meant, among other things, implementing a universal sign-in process. It was not enough to adopt a variety of software tools to run the show; AGU needed to know who was attending, how they were interacting with other participants, and protect the intellectual property of the conference. The authentication platform had to work across all of their third-party integrations, and as a general sign-in for other organizational resources. The meeting committee wanted to replicate the experience of having a single checkpoint at the entrance, which would then allow participants to freely wander the metaphorical hall.
All of the tools that were implemented at the 2020 conference were things that had already been thought of, discussed, and planned for at some point down the road. The pandemic drastically accelerated that process, giving AGU the challenge and opportunity to try those things immediately.
Experimenting to Find the Right Formula
In 2021, AGU was able to move their annual meeting to a hybrid approach, with about 10,000 members attending in person, and 14,000 attending online.
“The all-virtual meeting was hard. The hybrid meeting was even harder. It was so challenging to give both groups an equal experience, to make them feel valued and also facilitate interactions between the physical attendees and those on the digital platform. There was some frustration on both sides. Fortunately, as a scientific institution, we are somewhat comfortable with experimentation. We are willing to try out new things, learn from them, and make changes for a better experience next year. That’s the scientific method.”
Some of the things that worked that first time through were an integrated chat capability, new ways of presenting, asking questions and engaging with speakers and fellow attendees, and a spatial networking tool. Through trial and error, the organization began to learn what works, what doesn’t, and which situations make sense for which technology.
One of the best takeaways from the hybrid conference? Technology can help equalize research.
“I looked down at one point and saw that the fifth most popular country of origin for digital attendees at that moment was Tanzania. There is a large group of physical science professionals there, focusing on managing natural resources and plate tectonics. Without the virtual option, most of these scientists would lack the capability to travel to and participate in the robust discussions happening at the AGU annual meeting.”
AGU also relied heavily on outside partners to provide insight and expertise.
“We only do this large-scale meeting once per year, so, as much as we like to collect data and implement changes, we need to know what others are doing and how they have adapted as well.”
A Sustainable, Virtual Future
Earth and space scientists will always be focused on the impact that their research has on the world around them. In some ways, the individual hygienic packaging, increased use of plastic and large volume of disposable masks used at the 2021 meeting felt like a step backward. In general, AGU and its members work hard to minimize the environmental footprint of their conferences, even working with local hotels to cut back on harmful practices.
Moving to a hybrid meeting format is a natural extension of that. Travel by plane or car has a huge carbon footprint, particularly when you are talking about tens of thousands of people coming from all over the world.
However, AGU meetings play an important part in the research processes. Scientists rely heavily on getting feedback from their peers through posters and presentations. These conversations help refine theories and interpret data in the best way possible, so that published research has already been through a refining process.
“It is not about ending the meetings or moving to a virtual-only format. Instead, we need to continue to find the best technological solutions to provide options that make sense for everyone. Our focus now is on finding the right tools to bridge the gap between the physical and virtual participants. If we can do that, we will truly be serving the needs of our members, now and in the future.”
More from “Executive Perspectives”
[Part One] with Kerry Crockett, CEO of Insurance Accounting and Systems Association (IASA).
[Part Two] with Beth Hayson, associate executive director of continuing education and meetings & exhibitions at the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (AAOMS).
[Part Three] with Jennifer Tomb, CAE, CEM, CMP, Director of Meetings and Exhibits for the American Society for Microbiology (ASM)