eLTER community ventures new paths with hybrid conference format

The two EU projects eLTER PPP and eLTER PLUS already had to hold their kick-off meeting in virtual form during the first wave of the COVID- 19 pandemic in March 2020. While eLTER PLUS collects and analyses the requirements of a wide range of eLTER actors and users (politics, science, peer organisations, etc.), eLTER PPP forges the eLTER RI design accordingly and negotiates with future donors in around 20 countries. The large consortia of the two projects are made up of experts from different fields with diverse scientific backgrounds, such as environmental sciences, IT, law and administration.

After several months of working conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic with mainly home office and purely virtual meetings in almost all European countries, the desire for a physical meeting was understandably high. As the number of infections subsided in many places during the summer months and travel restrictions were eased as a result, there was real hope that at least a part of the eLTER projects’ consortia could soon meet face to face. This hope was justified, as it is essential for the further cooperation of both projects’ teams to make each other aware of their partly overlapping activities and to coordinate further steps in a meaningful way. Compared to the usual project work styles, this requires a lively work culture, effective means of communication and a high level of awareness of the common vision.

But also from a social point of view, a physical meeting was desirable, as especially international networks and initiatives, such as the process of building up the eLTER Research Infrastructure supported by the two eLTER projects, are based on many years of good and trustful cooperation at European level. But how is this to be maintained through purely virtual formats?

Sharing common memories is essential for this kind of collaboration, and these are usually created by meeting in person at conferences from time to time. This is an opportunity for small talk during coffee breaks, or to experience joint events such as conference dinners or excursions. Not only for long-lasting collegial relationships, but also for the integration of new colleagues, the social conditions at conferences should be taken into account.

It soon became clear that another purely virtual meeting would not be sufficient for further cooperation within the projects. The anticipation was all the greater when a conference hotel on Mallorca was reserved for the project meeting scheduled for mid-October, just as it was originally planned in March. It was planned to hold the meeting in the so-called "hybrid format". Some of the participants were to meet on site, if conditions in their respective countries of origin allowed. The other participants should join virtually. That was the plan. However, due to the impending "second wave", this plan also had to be revised at short notice. Once again there were travel restrictions and finally the hotel on Mallorca was closed.

However, the idea of a hybrid conference format should be retained. At the location of the eLTER Head Office in Leipzig, Germany, a physical meeting was prepared in compliance with the hygiene regulations applicable at the time. Here, the plenary lectures should take place during the conference and project partners for whom travelling was possible were invited. The physical plenary group was set up.

As the incidence of infection was also still low in some other European countries and travel within these countries was therefore still possible without restriction, physical meetings were organised at short notice in the form of so-called "physical satellite groups", e.g. in Sofia (Bulgaria). All other participants had the opportunity to participate virtually.

However, in order to ensure that the conference experience would be similar by both, virtual and physical participants, all aspects and materials of the conference were planned purely virtually. The organising team spent weeks gathering ideas and taking into account suggestions and needs from the eLTER community. Thus, a virtual lobby was created, a document in a cloud workspace (in Google Drive), from which one could easily access the different areas of the conference via links. From here, the virtual agenda, all virtual meeting rooms, as well as materials and events accompanying the conference could be accessed.

The conference programme was designed, based on a strong symbolism, to illustrate the complex ESFRI process for the participants by means of gearwheels. The two projects are thus linked into a common integrated mechanism through these gearwheels, which represent selected key themes:

  • Towards eLTER Standard Observations
  • An overarching and consistent landscape of eLTER stakeholders, users and target audiences
  • Forum for eLTER's Site and Platform coordinators across Europe
  • Development of the eLTER service portfolio for various user groups
  • Putting cross-disciplinarity into practice by interfacing with scientific user communities

A total of over 100 participants from 27 countries attended the meeting. First project successes were presented, a series of workshops on the gearwheel topics were organised and mechanisms were worked out to further establish the integrated work culture necessary for progress towards eLTER RI. The strategy of eLTER and practical measures to put risk management into practice were also discussed with main focus on the risks of a pandemic.

In addition to the joint work on so-called "living docs" in the Google Drive meeting folder, other tools were used. During the sessions the participants gave feedback and asked questions via Mentimeter. Flinga and Mural extended the range of virtual collaborative work and enabled everything that can be done in a physical meeting or training room with flipcharts, screens, pens, moderation cards or sticky notes.

The meeting also offered space for social activities. A virtual coffee room could be used for small talk during the breaks and for conversations in smaller groups during the entire conference. A virtual bulletin board was used for exchanging news, criticism, job announcements and jokes. In a virtual participant gallery, participants could create a business card in which they introduce themselves to each other with a portrait and some background information about themselves. Moreover, a photo-challenge called for the upload of photos on the topic "autumn in Europe" and provided an incentive to get some fresh air during the breaks when shooting photos. The social highlight was the virtual cocktail evening. Here, the participants could prove their musical talents. Besides a guitar concert, a serenade with a self-made instrument was performed. The evening was concluded with a toast in a virtual beach bar.

The name for the conference was also very imaginative. Since no real place could contribute to the recognition value of the conference, the name was based on the solar system. The first meeting of this kind was therefore named the eLTER Mercury Meeting.

Feedback on the conference was consistently positive. It was possible to find ways to advance the project work on a virtual basis and to create shared memories. There are plans to organise even more physical satellite groups at future meetings. Although only the physical plenary group in Leipzig with 10 participants and the satellite group in Sofia with 8 participants could take place due to the worsening COVID 19 situation. But if at least in these two groups newcomers could be integrated and the need for real contacts for a few participants could be met, this can already be considered a success. Thus, a series of such hybrid meetings within the next 1 to 2 years could certainly represent a way to counteract the restrictions in times of crisis.

Jeanette Schlief (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ)