1. TICTeC goes virtual: running a large scale international conference online

    Last week, we held our first ever online conference.

    TICTeC, mySociety’s annual Impacts of Civic Technology conference, was to have run in Reykjavik on 24 and 25 March, but those plans were, like so many others, scuppered by the COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, on those same dates, 180 people from 30 different countries joined us for a cut-down programme of online presentations from a selection of the speakers who’d planned to join us in Iceland.

    There’s no doubt that a conference is more fun when you all assemble in the same place, make connections and maybe enjoy some socialising too. Nonetheless, we now have proof that the essential part of TICTeC, the dissemination of research and knowledge — as well as at least part of the friendly socialising — can be managed virtually. As we all seek to decrease our carbon footprints, that is important knowledge.

    Other organisations are of course also looking to take their events online, and now that TICTeC is all done, several have asked if we could share some tips.

    So Gemma, mySociety’s Events Organiser, has shared all the logistics below and we hope that these will be useful. As she points out, this may not be the best way to run a conference online, but it certainly achieved everything we’d hoped for in the ten days we had available to put something together.

    Step 1: Making a decision

    Cancelling the real-world TICTeC was a real wrench: months of work had gone into arranging speakers, putting together the agenda, booking the venue and flights, and so on. Of course, as time went on, and the lockdown became more extensive, it became clear that there really wouldn’t have been the option to do otherwise.

    But we were left with a decision: should we postpone TICTeC, or perhaps simply forget all about it for this year? Or we could try to move it online.

    That decision had to be made fairly rapidly, since we’d cancelled only a couple of weeks before the event. It made sense to stick to the same dates if we were going online, because people had already earmarked them as time they’d be away from their workplace.

    So we decided we’d go for a virtual conference, and Gemma turned her formidable organisation skills away from Reykjavik and towards pulling this new kind of event together — all while wading through the long list of cancellations: the venue, staff flights, caterers, hotels, etc, etc.

    mySociety obviously has some advantages when it comes to this sort of thing: we’ve been working remotely since our inception; and a large proportion of our staff is technically adept. That said, we didn’t build anything. The technical aspect really only came into play to help us make decisions on what existing third party platform/s we would use, so if your own organisation is not so tecchy, you may find that you can benefit from our decisions and follow this plan anyway.

    Step 2: Rearranging the agenda

    Once we knew we were going ahead, Gemma contacted all the speakers to find out who would be willing to do their presentations virtually, what the practical challenges were for each, and how we could get around them. For example, was their wifi signal strong enough, or would they need to rely on data? If the latter, could we pay for them to top it up?

    These were significant considerations that if we hadn’t attended to them could actually have derailed the conference. In fact our intrepid keynote Nanjala Nyabola in Kenya found herself running to buy more data for her phone just minutes before her session began.

    People who would have been running workshops were asked if they’d like to create a ‘fringe event’ — ie, they would do the set-up for their own online session, and we would promote it on the TICTeC agenda.

    We decided not to try and run two full days, as that is a long time for anyone to sit in front of a screen. Instead, we scheduled the line up from 1pm to 5pm GMT each day, which also fitted in with a wide range of timezones.

    Timezones played a part in the practicalities of putting together a schedule, too, with speakers from countries from Taiwan to South America — obviously we didn’t want to be asking anyone to have to make a presentation at three in the morning their time! Here’s the final line-up.

    Step 3: Deciding on and setting up the tech

    zoom pandemic scooby doo memeYou’ve probably seen the jokey meme going round suggesting that Zoom, the online conferencing platform, was actually behind the pandemic — they certainly seem to be getting a lot of custom from it, and we have to admire how they’ve coped with the increased capacity.

    We, too, decided to use Zoom, as it had been recommended by a few people we trust. Zoom isn’t entirely frictionless — you have to set up an account and it prompts you to download a piece of software before using it the first time — but it’s robust and did pretty much everything we wanted it to.

    Additionally we used Slido, which allows people to submit questions and then everyone can vote for the ones they most want to hear the answers to. We’d seen this used to great effect by Audrey Tang who was our keynote-via-video link-up at TICTeC in Florence, in 2017.

    Then finally we set up a Google Drive folder containing a document for each session so everyone could contribute to collaborative note-taking, and where we also stored speakers’ slides.

    Gemma created a staff roles document ahead of the conference to brief the team. It was worth running through each simple task via a video call with staff about a week before the conference to make sure everyone understood their duties — this prevented any hiccups.

    If you’d like to see the nitty gritty of the various options we went for in Zoom and Slido, see this document.

    Step 4: belt and braces

    Gemma got in touch with the headline speakers for some trial runs, to test how well their connection would stand up on the day.

    If there was some danger that the connection wouldn’t be good enough and a speaker wouldn’t be able to make their presentation, Gemma asked them to prepare a video of their talk as a safety net.

    In the event, everything was fine and we didn’t need to switch to video, but it was good to know that we had that fallback.

    Gemma also advises to be prepared for your own connection going down, which happened to her mid-TICTeC! She found that tethering off her phone worked just as well if not better than her home broadband, so if you don’t know how to do this, it is worth looking it up. Instructions will vary depending on your phone set-up.

    Step 5: promotion

    Creating the event generated a Zoom URL, which we then shared with speakers.

    Next, we needed to make sure that as many people as possible knew that the event was happening. We put the word out via our newsletter (with an extra reminder being sent out on the morning of the first day), and every civic tech-related mailing list or Facebook group we could think of. We also sent out scores of tweets highlighting each speaker, and a few Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram posts.

    All of these communications linked to a central blog post which explained what people needed to do to participate (ie make sure they had access to Zoom, etc) and linked to the agenda. On the agenda were:

    • the timings and schedule
    • the links to Zoom, Slido and the Google docs

    Keeping all the information in one place meant that if anything changed, we only had to edit that document. We asked everyone to share the information widely.

    Mainly due to the lack of time we didn’t set up any kind of registration, such as an Eventbrite page. This had the positive effect that there were fewer barriers to joining in (and that anyone learning about the event while it was in progress, say, via Twitter, could just hop on), but it also meant that people wouldn’t receive an automatic reminder of the event starting, and that we had absolutely no idea how many people to expect.

    Anyone with the Zoom meeting URL could join. Zoom prefers people to download their launcher, but we heard from a couple of sources that this isn’t necessary or particularly desirable, so we also linked to this page on how to use your browser instead.

    Step 6: running the event

    We always take several mySociety staff members to help run TICTeC. If you’re thinking that a virtual conference would require less manpower, that’s not what we found. We called on all of the colleagues who would have been with us in Reykjavik to help make sure TICTeC online went smoothly. There were numerous tasks: none of them was particularly grueling, but put together, they’d definitely have been too much for just one or two people to handle.

    See this document for full details of everything that was going on behind the scenes while TICTeC was running.

    In short, while Bec and Mark (Head of Research and CEO) were introducing speakers and running the Q&A sessions  — a job requiring a surprising amount of energy — Gemma was manning a second Zoom conference, the ‘green room’, where speakers could test their connections, mics, cameras and slides before coming into the main one.

    Sam, our sysadmin, was on hand in case anything failed. Myf, Communications Manager was clearing Slido between sessions and tweeting to let people know what was going on. Other staff members were ensuring that notes were being taken on the collaborative documents, and keeping an eye on Zoom chat to see if anyone needed help.

    Knowing that people would be joining the event at different times throughout the two days, we kept repeating messages in Zoom’s chat about the location of Google docs, the conference hashtag, and that people should use Slido rather than Zoom to pose questions.

    Slido made it easy for our two conference compères to ask speakers the most popular questions during conference Q&As. During the conference, we frequently reminded attendees in the Zoom chat to ask and vote for questions on Slido.

    Step 7: sharing the event

    Thanks to Zoom’s add-on allowing us to record the event, we now have videos of the whole thing, as well as a copy of everything that was said in chat.

    The plan is to edit this into a video for each session, which we’ll then publish on our YouTube channel.

    Where we have them, the slides for the presentations are in the Google Drive, as are the notes.

    Step 8: look back and evaluate

    So, how was it for you?

    We can’t pretend we offered anything like all the joys of swinging by the Blue Lagoon or Seljalandsfoss, checking in with associates to enjoy a pricey Icelandic beer, and mingling with the friendly civic tech community face to face. Those things, sadly, are on hold for the foreseeable.

    But we do think we managed to produce something special.

    There really was a sense of camaraderie and togetherness in our virtual Zoom conference room, perhaps borne of all those previous TICTeCs where people have had time to build up relationships in real life.

    The presentations went well. Speakers came through loud and clear; their personalities were not reduced and their points were not diluted by the online environment. It was just as easy to take in the information and to pose questions as it would have been in a conference hall. Small jokes resonated and the resulting chuckles rippled across the world.

    To our relief, and perhaps to some small degree of surprise, everything went smoothly. Gemma mostly puts this down to the planning and practice we did in the week or so beforehand, but also to colleagues and to the speakers and attendees all approaching this novel set-up with a degree of trust and a willingness to try.

    We’re hugely grateful to the speakers and attendees who made all of this possible. Thanks, too, to our sponsors Luminate, Google, Facebook, the Citizens’ Foundation and Balsamiq, all of whom stuck with us as we pivoted to an online event.

    Finally, kudos to Gemma who really is the linchpin of all our events and whose refusal to be daunted by a vast list of admin practicalities repeatedly serves as an inspiration to us all.

    We are all very much hoping that soon enough, our community can all be in the same room again. And goodness, won’t we all appreciate it.

  2. TICTeC’s going online

    Thanks to the travel restrictions imposed due to Covid-19, TICTeC will not be going ahead in Reykjavik. Instead, we will be taking the TICTeC experience online. We very much hope you’ll join us from the comfort of your own homes.

    Here’s everything you need to know to be a part of the first ever completely virtual version of our annual Impacts of Civic Technology conference.

    When

    On the afternoons of Tuesday 24 and Wednesday 25 March.

    Tuesday: 13:00 to 17:00 GMT

    Wednesday: 13:00 to 17:10 GMT

    There’ll also be fringe events happening around these times.

    How much?

    Free of charge, of course.

    What’s the agenda?

    You can see the timings for each session on the agenda here. Join us for the whole lot, or dip in and out to the parts that interest you.

    We’re delighted to say that we’ll still have barnstorming keynote sessions from Nanjala Nyabola and Hollie Russon Gilman, each giving profound insights into the extraordinary political times we are living in, from a global perspective.

    There’ll also be sessions from representatives of Iceland‘s local and national government and civil society; research presented from Uganda, Taiwan, North and South America and beyond; and speakers from a range of organisations including Civic Hall, Citizens Foundation of Iceland, g0v.tw, Transparency International UK, The African Legal Information Institute, Frag Den Staat… and more.

    So TICTeC will still be allowing you to gain insights from all around the world, sticking to our mission of bringing together practitioners, commentators, academics and funders to debate, network, and share research and knowledge in the civic tech field.

    What else is going on?

    There will be fringe events as well (details TBA) and the opportunity to chat online with other attendees.

    What do I need to take part?

    Zoom

    Presentations will be taking place via Zoom. Before TICTeC starts, please make sure you have downloaded the Zoom launcher, or read this page to learn more about Zoom, including how to use it in your browser. The link to TICTeC is https://zoom.us/j/528401903.

    This link is also on the agenda page.

    Slido

    Slido allows the audience to submit and vote for audience questions, so the ones that the speaker answers are the ones most people want to hear. Once the event is live, just enter the code at the top of the agenda on slido.com in your browser. If you prefer to use the app, download it here.

    Access to Google docs

    There’ll be a collaborative document for each session where we can all work together to take notes for each session. Find them all here.

    You won’t need a Google account to view or add to these documents.

    You might want to do all this in good time before Tuesday, just to make sure everything works!

    What if I can’t make those dates?

    We’ll be putting the videos online afterwards, and you can check the notes as well. So the only thing you’ll miss out on is the real-time chatting and networking.

    Please spread the word

    We have room for literally thousands of participants, so this is the chance for anyone who has an interest in Civic Tech to come and enjoy some great presentations for free.

    Let’s take this opportunity to widen our audience and put the word out through social media, newsletters, blog posts, wherever people will see it. Thanks!

    We want to extend our thanks to the sponsors and supporters of TICTeC 2020:

     

  3. TICTeC 2020: schedule now online

    We’re delighted to announce the schedule for TICTeC 2020, our two-day conference that focuses on the use and impacts of Civic Tech around the world. If this sounds good to you, you’d better book now, because spaces are limited.

    Thanks to our sponsors, TICTeC is returning for its sixth year and this time will be held in Reykjavik on 24th and 25th March 2020. Councils in Iceland are pioneers in using digital tools to elicit feedback and engagement from its citizens on policies, expenditure and projects, so TICTeC 2020 will be a really unique occasion to hear about these, as well as many other innovations from across the world.

    You can find out all about TICTeC over on the event’s website, and get a flavour of what Iceland is like as a place to visit in this video:

     

  4. TICTeC 2020 keynote: Hollie Russon Gilman

    Hollie Russon GilmanLast week we announced one must-see TICTeC keynote — now we’re happy to confirm the second, the equally unmissable Hollie Russon Gilman.

    Hollie is a political scientist, civic strategist and fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program, Georgetown’s Beeck Center, and teaches at Columbia University. She has a zest for revitalising the American democracy and exploring how digital technologies can best be deployed toward this aim.

    Her first book Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation and America is one of the most prominent studies of participatory budgeting in the US, and in 2019 she co-authored, with Sabeel Rahman, the excellent Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis.

    And just like her companion TICTeC keynote Nanjala Nyabola, Hollie will place the beguiling promises of civic tech within a wider, more sober context: she is equally keen to outline that technology can only reach its potential when combined with the strategic understanding of geopolitics and institutional structures.

    Hollie brings highly relevant hands-on experience to her academic work, having served in the Obama White House as the Open Government and Innovation Advisor helping to implement the international Open Government Partnership and as a field organiser in New Hampshire.

    She has published in numerous academic and popular audience publications; and been a researcher and adviser for many organisations and foundations including the Case Foundation; Center for Global Development, Gates Foundation, Knight Foundation, Google.org, and the World Bank.

    Hollie’s work will be of huge interest to the TICTeC community — and you can be there to hear it in person, by booking to join us at TICTeC in Reykjavik this March.

    Be a part of TICTeC 2020

    TICTeC tickets are available at early bird prices until 14 February, and at regular prices until 20 March.

    Want to be on the same speaker line-up as Hollie? You still have time to apply to present or host a workshop related to the conference theme, as applications close on 17 January: more information here.

    We’ll be announcing more TICTeC 2020 speakers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

    Top image: Harpa conference centre in Reykjavik, by Clark Van Der Beken

  5. TICTeC 2020 keynote: Nanjala Nyabola

    We’re delighted to announce our first confirmed keynote speaker for TICTeC 2020: esteemed writer, activist and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola.

    Nanjala has published a substantial body of work spanning academic research, books and articles. A key theme is the effect that technology is having upon politics  — in her home country of Kenya, but also across Africa and indeed globally, with a look at the recent electoral and political upheaval in the UK and US.

    Many millions of words have been written on Trump and Brexit, but what perhaps makes Nanjala’s analysis different is that it comes from a Kenyan perspective. She’s uniquely well-placed to achieve her stated aim, to “upend the flawed logic that technology trends only impact the West”.

    Nanjala argues that digital technologies can’t solve embedded issues such as the social divide, and that in fact technology may be amplifying societal ills such as hate speech and echo chambers. Her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya was hailed as “one of the few studies of social media that goes beyond the digital sphere to provide in-depth social, political, and historic context”.

    Meanwhile, her articles have informed international debate across the Financial Times, the Guardian, the New Internationalist, the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera and many more.

    Now Nanjala will also be informing the delegates at TICTeC 2020 in Reykjavik in a keynote that is set to be inspiring and provocative. If you’d like to have your horizons expanded, and understand more about the effects technology is wreaking upon politics, come and hear it directly from one who has devoted her work to just that.

    Be a part of TICTeC 2020

    TICTeC tickets are available at early bird prices until 14 February, and at regular prices until 20 March.

    Want to be on the same speaker line-up as Nanjala? You still have time to apply to present or host a workshop related to the conference theme, as applications close on 17 January: more information here.

    We’ll be announcing more TICTeC 2020 speakers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

    Image credits: Nanjala Nyabola: Jan Michalko (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Harpa conference centre: Michael Held

  6. Join us in Reykjavik for TICTeC 2020

    We’re excited to announce that TICTeC 2020, our sixth global conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Reykjavik, Iceland on 24 and 25 March 2020.

    Put that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.

    What is TICTeC and why do we host it?

    There are several existing annual conferences in which civic technology is showcased, and in which the potential for such tools to change and drive participation can be discussed, however, very few of these events include real and in-depth research into whether the potential outcomes of civic technology were realised.

    This is where TICTeC differs: the majority of speakers will be presenting evidence-based research to demonstrate the various impacts of civic technology from across the world.

    We created TICTeC to bridge the gap between civic tech and research – to bring two different communities together, to emphasise the importance of being able to demonstrate impact, and to share what those impacts are.

    Why Iceland?

    We’re really excited to be hosting TICTeC in Reykjavik, as the City Council are pioneers in using digital tools to elicit feedback and engagement from its citizens on council policies, expenditure and projects.  As one civil servant told us: “If a political party does not believe in or promise citizen engagement they just won’t be elected here”.

    TICTeC 2020 will therefore be a unique occasion for the global community to learn from Iceland’s extensive civic tech and civic engagement experience, and vice versa.

    We’re delighted that civic tech veterans Citizens Foundation will speak at TICTeC 2020 about their latest attempt to crowdsource the Icelandic constitution using digital tools, a project they are currently working on with Iceland’s National Parliament and the University of Iceland. Lessons from this will be extremely valuable to TICTeC’s global audience, so we are excited to have them join us.

    TICTeC 2020 will also include keynote speeches, simultaneous research tracks, hands-on workshops, and special networking sessions. We also expect there to be additional fringe events as other organisations arrange companion events before and after the main conference.

    Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts to further explain our reasons behind choosing Iceland for TICTeC 2020; how we’ll be trying to reduce TICTeC 2020’s carbon footprint; and our experiences trying to increase diversity at our conferences.

    Apply to present or run a workshop

    This two day conference provides the opportunity for researchers to present theoretical or empirical work related to the conference theme. We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme. We encourage submissions to focus on the specific impacts of technologies, rather than showcase new tools that are as yet untested.

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop at TICTeC 2020, please submit your proposals now. You have until Friday 17th January 2020.

    Register

    For the last three years TICTeC has sold out – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on Friday 14th February 2020.

    Sponsor

    If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact gemma@mysociety.org for more information.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in March in beautiful Reykjavik!

    Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse all the resources from this year’s TICTeC, check out the TICTeC guide, and/or watch this video overview:

    And here is an overview of this year’s conference, expect more of the same plus improvements in Reykjavik:

    Photo header: Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay