2020 IEEE Secure Development Conference (SecDev) – Virtual Event Case Study
With travel and public gatherings still hindered by risks associated with COVID-19, the organizers for the IEEE SecDev made the decision to convert their in-person event, originally planned to take place in Atlanta, GA on Sept 28-30, to an all-digital conference experience.
The Decision to Go Virtual
Several influential factors informed the committee’s decision to host the conference virtually, rather than postpone.
Ongoing global travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 situation and the need to take safety measures would inhibit many of the SecDev attendees, including international researchers in computer security and electronic privacy, from attending.
Conference papers had already been submitted and accepted. The duty to ensure the technical exchange of this information via a conference format was important to the committee.
Moving the event to a later date was ruled out due to the uncertainty of global travel policies, and the potential impact postponing could have on the following year’s event.
Despite the challenges, the organizers were strongly committed to the conference’s mission of bridging the gap between constructive security research and practice, focusing on theory, techniques, and tools to “build security in” to existing and new computing systems.
Organizing the Virtual Event
Planning a virtual event includes a range of factors that differ from a traditional in-person conference, which are covered in the IEEE Computer Society Virtual Event Resource Guide. (link) When the decision to go virtual was made two months before the start of the event, the first order of business was to sort out contract issues with the live venue.
From there, the conference organizers met with the IEEE CS Virtual Event team to discuss options for virtual platform and related technologies. After considering the conference program and audience, the decision was made to go with a combination of Zoom Meetings, Zoom Webinars, and a Slack workspace for asynchronous communications about the conference sessions.
The conference organizers then took several steps to prepare for the virtual event:
Revised the conference program to adjust for timezone issues;
Lowered the registration rate to $50 for the virtual conference;
Asked all authors to create presentation videos and upload them for use during the conference;
Updated the messaging on the website and communicated with attendees about the changes; and
Added a password-protected Program page to the conference website with links to the live sessions.
The conference organizers recruited student volunteers to run the Zoom tools alongside the session chairs for the conference sessions, and the Computer Society team provided training for the recommended workflow, settings, and general best practices.
IEEE SecDev Conference Successes
Despite having to cancel the in-person conference, the virtual event was a success.
SecDev is a unique conference in security, and it fills a strong demand in industry for an accessible venue where people come to build relationships and learn. The broad range of organizations for attendees this year proved that. In the end, 65% were first-time attendees, with 35% from industry, 45% from academia, and 20% from the Public sector, including attendees from the governments of Canada, Nigeria, and the US.
Attendee feedback shows that they were favorably impressed with the experience, and returning attendees were happy with the changes the committee had made to address comments from previous years, including improved communications and visibility, as well as shifting the content focus more toward practical, invited hands-on application and training, rather than an open academic format.
Zoom Meetings and Webinars provided a reliable toolset that was familiar to attendees and organizers and robust enough to support the needs of the various sessions. The Slack workspace received good traffic from attendees for threaded discussions beyond the live chat and Q&A in the Zoom sessions.
The biggest success was that we were able to transition in such a short amount of time. The virtual conference showed strong attendance, and the community has shown support for continuing to grow this event. This certainly was not the conference the organizers set out to host, but attendees’ feedback has confirmed SecDev 2020 definitely moved the committee closer to their long-term target objectives.
While there were many successful outcomes of the IEEE SecDev virtual event, there are some helpful takeaways that other virtual event organizers might find useful.
The biggest challenge was the uncertainty surrounding travel and other COVID-affected matters, which delayed decisions about how to proceed with the 5th annual SecDev conference. Once the decision was made to go to a fully virtual event, many steps had to be taken to quickly change course, including closing out existing contractual arrangements and beginning new logistical efforts.
The SecDev organizers recognized quickly that the most cost-effective and efficient solution available to them was the combination of Zoom and Slack that a number of other Computer Society-sponsored conferences had adopted this year, rather than the more costly options available from platform vendors. The conference program was well-suited to the approach.
Recruitment of reliable volunteers to monitor the Slack channels and to host the Zoom sessions was crucial to the success of the event. Coordinated efforts among those involved made for smooth days during the conference.
Knowing the workflow and testing out the tools in advance were also key to the good results witnessed in the live sessions.
Communicating the changes as early as possible to attendees and authors and speakers once decisions were made to go virtual, and then regarding processes for gathering recorded presentations, accessing the sessions, and so on was another important element of the effort.
It is important to recognize that virtual conferences require substantial effort. One strength of SecDev was the team that came together to execute all the steps.