Virtual conferencing to the rescue

Faced with the threat of cancelling their scheduled live events in the wake of the pandemic, bold organisers are changing course to hold engaging virtual conferences

07 May 2020 . 6,736 Views

A lost passport and scheduled meetings in different capitals pushed lawyer Linda Bonyo into the deep end of virtual conferences without notice.

Linda, the CEO, and founder of LawyersHub, had organized the inaugural Africa Law Tech Festival. She lost her travel document as she returned from Kampala for the first of pre-festival events.

It meant she could not travel to Lagos and then connect to Kigali in time to attend festival events to speak on the work her organization does: promoting access to justice through technology and innovation. She had to join, participate, and speak remotely.

This marked the beginning of Linda’s dalliance with virtual conferencing. It has come in handy in these times, with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting mass gatherings and forcing their cancellation or postponement.

Those who have chosen to go ahead with the events have had to resort to technology to host people virtually.

A few weeks ago, Linda was a speaker at the CodeX Future Law 2020, which is organized by the Stanford Law School in the US. During the conference, she took part in a panel on ‘Legal Innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa.’

“It was easier for me this time around because I had experience in speaking at a virtual conference. It also helped that Zoom, which we were conferencing on, was user friendly, and our internet connection in Kenya is stable,” she recalls.

Linda was also a panelist on a virtual conference recently hosted by Smart Africa, an international organization championing socio-economic development through ICT.

Besides Zoom, other technology solutions that support conferencing include Skype, Cisco Webex, Blue Jeans, and GoToWebinar. With a stable internet connection and adequate cybersecurity measures, it is all systems go.

Business unusual

The pharmaceutical industry in the US was scheduled for a major conference this April. The problem was that the conference was planned before COVID-19 began spreading around the world, forcing cancellation of events and disrupting business-as-usual.

Faced with the new reality, the organisers turned to digital help.

“The Covid-19 coronavirus has created one of the most challenging environments the modern world has ever experienced. Now, more than ever, pharma must step up and bring solutions forward,” the organisers said in a statement.

Change course

“We have therefore decided not to cancel, but to reinvent eyeforpharma Philadelphia as a virtual event. We are emboldened by our speakers who have agreed to stay by our side, guaranteeing shared value and ideas at such a critical time. Let our reimagined virtual event continue to inspire you even as you are restricted at home.”

In the end, they pulled off a virtual conference bringing together over 300 expert speakers discussing six main agenda points and delivering more than 150 world-class presentations, panels, interviews and exclusive COVID-19 updates.

The virtual conference offered full interactivity capability, including live Q&A and audience polls.

What’s more, registration was free and the content is still available until May 15, defining the new bounds of conferencing in the digital era.

Linda’s experience participating in virtual conferences has emboldened her to set up webinars and other such online forums for her organization. These, she runs from the comfort of her bedroom.

“We have had three international policy hackathons so far for lawyers to innovatively come up with ideas for governments to navigate this COVID-19 crisis,” Linda says.

Less interaction

Unlike live conferences, virtual ones come with limitations, particularly the missed opportunity to network and engage one-on-one.

“Thankfully, most of these limitations can be mitigated. To maintain the opportunity for networking, we usually leave the webinar on for a while at the end for attendees to chat,” Linda explains.

Save for distance, participating in a virtual conference is not very different from being present in person. Thanks to technology, attendees can not only follow presentations but also engage with the speakers, drawing their attention by raising a hand, commenting, and giving a thumbs up.

Linda is also one of the millions of Kenyans who are riding on Safaricom’s broad capabilities to provide data through fibre to the home and mobile data.

Following the advent of the pandemic, traffic on the network has increased by about 40 percent, with more people staying at home and having to rely on the web to stay connected, work, and study.

Peter Muli, who was in a recent virtual conference that drew over 700 participants from across the world, noted the challenge of picking which questions to tackle from the floor.

“Fortunately, there is a democratic solution to this. All questions posed by attendees using the Q&A button are put to the vote, and the top five picked for responses by the speaker,” Muli explains.

With the virtual conference, there are also the anxieties that come with the experience of speaking to a device as opposed to a roomful of people.

“Nothing beats physical interaction. You can see the audience reaction to your presentations, read the mood in the room to keep you at ease. Virtually, is like reciting the presentation to yourself,” Muli says.

With technological advances, it is possible to have breakaway sessions in virtual conferences, as well as exhibitions that attendees can visit online. It is also possible to run live surveys during the sessions and gather feedback whose outcome is dispatched at the end. There are also recordings of the sessions that are shared soon afterwards, greatly aiding minute-writing.

Linda says that with the forced shift towards virtual conference for the foreseeable future, it is essential to smoothen the transition by eliminating bottlenecks.

“We need to democratize the space by ensuring the internet is affordable through innovative measures such as scrapping taxes. It is also worth thinking about opportunities in the Universal Service Fund, which was created for times like these,” Linda says.

Meeting etiquette

On his part, Muli says it is now necessary for virtual conference-goers to familiarize themselves with basic etiquette to make the most of it.

“People do not quite appreciate the value of having a plain background instead of family portraits to minimize distractions. There is also the importance of choosing a quiet place from which to participate,” he adds.

Cybersecurity should of course be a top priority whenever one is going into the internet and virtual meetings and conferences are not an exception.

Zoom, currently the most popular virtual conferencing application, offers useful in-meeting security capabilities to the meeting host which should be adhered in order to avoid cybersecurity pitfalls.

Users should be able to:

  • Secure a meeting with encryption
  • Create Waiting Rooms for attendees
  • Require host to be present before meeting starts
  • Expel a participant or all participants
  • Lock a meeting
  • Screen share watermarks
  • Audio signatures
  • Enable/disable a participant or all participants to record
  • Temporary pause screen-sharing when a new window is opened
  • Password protect a meeting
  • Only allow individuals with a given e-mail domain to join



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