In the wake of large-scale event cancellations due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and resultant concerns, many scheduled events and panels are moving online to host virtual discussions instead.
A panel called Innovating With Open Government Data was all set for for this year's SXSW, slated to bring data scientists — many with experience in the federal government — to Austin, Texas, as part of the largest media conference in the world.
It was all to happen this week. Between networking happy hours at houses converted to bars on Rainey Street, plus lunches at food trucks serving tacos and barbecue platters, attendees would have listened as this group spoke about data work at all levels of government. They would have heard them describe what was being done to give citizens, journalists and volunteer civic technologists access to data sets that could be used to innovate. This panel, of course, was cancelled earlier this month along with the rest of SXSW to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
That panel, however, still happened during its scheduled time Monday, taking place instead as a webinar online. All of the original speakers were in attendance — moderator Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition; Amy Edwards, the deputy assistant secretary for the Office of the Fiscal Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury; Rebecca Hutchinson, the big data lead for the U.S. Census Bureau; and Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The panel was obviously different than it might have been in person. Attendees weren’t able to engage in small talk with those seated beside them, nor were they able to engage speakers in a quick walk-and-talk as everyone shuffled to the next panel, the next event. And spontaneous interactions between panelists were null.
But all of the speakers got their time to deliver their comments along with PowerPoint presentations, and a solid 20 minutes at the end of the panel was dedicated to audience questions. It was, in other words, the next best thing to being in an Austin conference hall.
And this panel is far from the only event in the government tech and innovation space to be moving online now. Last week, Code for America responded to the cancellation of its annual summit by holding a panel in a virtual setting. That panel was Successful Remote and Distributed Work in Uncertain Times, a fitting choice as tech workers everywhere hunker down at home in the name of responsible social distancing.
There’s a list of other event organizers taking similar measures, too. If you were slated to go to an event in March, April or potentially even May, you’re probably already aware of a virtual alternative. But take for example, URBAN-X, an urban tech accelerator based in New York City.
URBAN-X had an event called Designing Out Waste set for March, as well as its semi-regular demo day event scheduled for April. With the advent of the coronavirus, neither are happening now. The group sent a note Monday announcing that it was “discontinuing in-house programming at our Brooklyn, NY headquarters until further notice.”
Both of those events, however, will now be streamed online, and URBAN-X’s next startup cohort will become its first-ever remote group, with companies working with the accelerator virtually.
Meanwhile, in the upper echelons of American government, campaigning to be the Democratic nominee for president has moved to non-physical arenas. On Monday evening, former Vice President Joe Biden held a Tele-Town Hall event, during which he spoke over the phone with voters from states that are still headed to the polls Tuesday. Biden’s rival for the nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has hosted similar virtual events.
Looking forward, timelines for when it will once again be safe to congregate in large numbers at events, panels, or even community hackathons are unclear. Some cancelled spring-time happenings are being shuffled to the fall, with new dates being picked for September. Others are taking the virtual route, enabled by high-speed Internet and advanced communication technologies.
Some in local government or the adjacent spaces are going a step further to simulate the sort of spontaneous interactions that take place at physical events. Christopher Thompson is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation program director for San Jose, Calif., a role that puts him in close proximity to both tech and government, given Knight’s work and the city’s location at the heart of Silicon Valley.
Thompson organized Tuesday what he called a virtual coffee via Twitter, noting that there was “no agenda other than connect with each other.” It’s the type of thing that took place all the time in cities up until roughly a week or so ago. Moving forward, we’ll all be joining meetings like this from our offices, kitchens and living rooms for the foreseeable future, making the most of virtual panels, coffee chats, happy hours and webinars as this crisis evolves.
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