2020 is the year of the virtual conference. The INFORMS Annual Meeting is usually an in-person conference with a typical attendance of 6,000-7,000 attendees. This was my 13th straight INFORMS Annual Meeting and the first virtual one. Was it different? Absolutely, but different isn’t necessarily bad.
The major difference was that most of the presentations were recorded. If you registered, then you received access to the recorded presentations for the next three months. This is a very nice feature since this is a huge conference. With over 70 tracks and special events occurring at the same time over a five day period, there are always conflicting interesting presentations and you can’t visit them all. Of course, in-person, you may not be able to get from one location to another in time to see a presentation or an event.
The virtual conference solves this problem. It also allows multiple attendees to share their favorite presentations with other attendees. These briefs can then be viewed by the other attendees when it fits their schedule.
If most of the briefs were recorded then why didn’t INFORMS just post the videos and hold the conference asynchronously? If you did attend the listed time slot for the presentations then you were able to participate in a live chat with the presenters.
The element that no virtual conference can replicate is the chance of interaction with new and old acquaintances. There is really no way at a virtual conference to accidentally run into a professor that you took a class from fifteen years ago. . The INFORMS Annual Meeting did try to inject some of that element by having virtual networking floors. These floors had tables and you would randomly be assigned to a table. I hung out on the floors for a few hours and met several interesting students and discussed their research. In that respect, it was a success, although I didn’t catch up with any old acquaintances during the conference unless I had scheduled a discussion time with them in advance.
The major topics addressed during the conference were quantum computing, the role that analytics has played in dealing with the COVID response, and how supply chain data and models have been affected over the past year.
CANA participated in the conference on multiple levels. Norm Reitter furthered the Analytics Capability Evaluation Committee effort by hosting an informational session. He also presented the “Force Closure Modeling To Support Multi-mission Scenario Analysis” in support of the USMC. Connor McLemore briefed his research work on “Operational Readiness Rollup: Modeling Additive Readiness”, and Rocky Graciani presented his work on “Determining Who Pays For Inventory Optimization Made Easy-r”. Walt DeGrange was a session chair for the SpORts analytics section for a session that included a wide range of topics from analytically testing which Dungeons and Dragons character classes perform the best, to how bye weeks affect team performance in the Canadian Football League, and how to use analytics to draft the perfect NBA team.
So, are online conferences the size of the 2020 INFORMS Annual Meeting here to stay? I would personally guess - yes. The pace of effectively dealing with the COVID pandemic will determine when the world will return to in-person conferences. That being said, the ability to interact with attendees around the world given current travel limitations makes this an excellent way to present new analytics. Also, the ability to interact online with presenters and review presentations up to three months post-event is very nice. Perhaps in the near future, we will see a hybrid model that melds in-person and virtual attendance, giving us the best of both worlds.