How We Got to Clowdr (now Midspace) for CSCW ’21

In late August 2021, Clowdr rebranded as “Midspace“. Its technical features and commitment to inclusion and affordability remain as they were under the previous brand name. Registered attendees to CSCW 2021 will receive joining instructions from Midspace”.

A note from the CSCW 21 general co-chairs, virtual participation task force, and equity and accessibility co-chairs

We are pleased to announce that Clowdr (now Midspace) will be the primary online platform for CSCW 21. After carefully considering many other options, gathering preferences and requirements from the organizing committee members, meeting with other conference chairs, participating in demos and discussing our priorities, our Virtual Participation Task Force felt Clowdr was our best option. This post explains how we got here.

For starters, just as no physical conference is in the perfect city or at the perfect hotel, no online platform will be a perfect solution. Planning an event like CSCW necessarily means making hard choices while doing our best to balance many competing interests, preferences, abilities and perspectives. CSCW 2020 used Clowdr as its virtual conference platform and we collected feedback from attendees about what worked well and what didn’t. Since then, their team has put in a great deal of effort and we all agree that the current version dramatically improves almost every aspect of the conference experience. It’s still not perfect, although, after reviewing and comparing several alternatives, its current version is the solution that best enables us to meet the largest combination of our most pressing requirements.

Throughout the process, we had some key priorities that drove our decisions. It goes without saying that we wanted to provide a high quality conference experience in all venues. This meant:1) accessibility to people with wide-ranging abilities and in as many geographic areas as possible, 2) effective support for social events and informal networking, 3) affordability and inclusivity via as-low-as-possible registration rates and technical support, and 4) unlikely to place an undue burden on our already hard-working team of extraordinary volunteers.

In terms of accessibility, we wanted a platform that supports captioning, zooming in, and screen readers for those with specific access needs. We also wanted to be sure the platform itself, or the services it relies on (e.g.,  Zoom, Youtube, etc.) was unlikely to be blocked in certain regions of the world. Several other platforms were ruled out in our process because they did not meet these criteria.

In supporting informal networking, we wanted ways for people to contact each other by chat or video, venues to support unplanned encounters, spaces that are appropriate for informal events, and awareness of who else is attending the conference and in particular spaces. We also sought a platform where discussions and reactions to all elements of the program (e.g. comments, questions, suggestions, etc.) would remain available and visible during the entire conference (and ideally beyond the event)to support asynchronous interactions between attendees and presenters from different timezones. To the extent possible, we wanted all of this to occur on a single platform, to avoid inconveniences, minimise the “set-up work” by attendees and presenters, and provide good flow between more and less structured elements of the conference.

To be inclusive of as many attendees as possible, we wanted a platform that did not 

require us to substantially raise registration fees. For an event as large as CSCW (with nearly 1000 participants last year), even a virtual conference has substantial expenses to ensure that it runs smoothly and meets obligations to ACM and SIGCHI. Some platforms that we considered offered extensive features and support, but cost 4-5x more than others. They were not chosen as they would have meant these substantial additional costs cascading onto registration fees. Further, a benefit of choosing Clowdr is also supporting an open-source project dedicated to making online conferences accessible to as many communities as possible. By choosing Clowdr, we are able to embody our values as an academic community that supports open collaboration and accessibility.

Finally, CSCW depends heavily on an amazing community of volunteers. For an event of our size and scope, we did not want to unduly burden our volunteers with tasks such as providing immediate technical support to those having difficulties, monitoring and maintaining servers, excessively wrangling unruly data into convoluted formats, and/or building conference infrastructure that would replicate the functionality of existing platforms. We felt this ruled out several possibilities we’ve seen other conferences use with suites of off-the-shelf conferencing and chat platforms. 

Our decision process involved brainstorming key functionalities and possibilities with the entire conference organizing committee in a live Zoom session, soliciting input from the entire committee and CSCW 2020 attendees via surveys, considering all of this input and identifying several platform possibilities, arranging meetings and demos with platform vendors and conference chairs who had used these platforms, contributing to a dedicated discussion channel for the conference infrastructure, creating a shared spreadsheet that combined all of our notes for comparison and assessment with regard to our priorities, and finally identifying our individual and collective preferences. Taking part in regular meetings with other SIGCHI conference chairs also greatly helped us clarify many aspects of concretely using several of the platforms under consideration and feedback to the team. We were guided throughout this process by our indispensable conference planners, John and Joanne Lateulere, who have now planned and executed several virtual events. 

In the end, we chose Clowdr because we felt it best met our priorities as outlined above and has the greatest opportunity to provide you all with an excellent conference experience. We can’t wait to see you on the new and improved Clowdr in October!