NeurIPS 2020 Online Experiments: Gather Town Poster Sessions and Mementor

Deciding on Gather Town for poster sessions

ICML and ICLR had held their poster sessions as Zoom calls for each poster. Feedback from attendees and presenters was mixed: presenters were often alone for two hours in zoom calls that attendees were wary of joining for fear that they might be alone with the presenter, attendees had no general snapshot of what other people were seeing at any given time.

Setting up the poster sessions before the conference

The first challenge was setting up the towns in advance of the conference. We worked from a target of smoothly accommodating up to 10,000 simultaneous attendees for the poster sessions. We did not expect the simultaneous attendance to ever be that high, but we wanted to be prepared in case it was (it turns out simultaneous attendance did not go over 2,000). The towns in Gather can support 2,000 people, but Gather engineers recommended that we aim for 400 people per town for the smoothest interactions with heavy video and poster use. For each of 7 poster sessions, Program Chairs painstakingly clustered the posters into 11 or 25 thematic clusters of up to 20 posters — the morning (in US timezones) sessions were preferred by roughly twice as many people as the evening ones.

During and after the conference

Attendees who went to poster sessions gave overall positive feedback: according to a post-conference survey, 75% of people who attended poster sessions enjoyed the experience, while 8% didn’t, Attendees were having lively interactions, reported being satisfied with the ability to instantly see what posters other attendees were visiting, and enjoyed randomly bumping into colleagues. Interactions were mostly smooth thanks to the generous capacity we had budgeted for. Gather Town engineers were available throughout the poster sessions to assist attendees with any problems, in a dedicated support booth we had set up for them in the poster session garden.

Creating a mentor platform

This was a joint effort of our team and Marc Deisenroth, Emtiyaz Khan, Cheng Soon Ong, Adam White, and Olga Isupova to enable mentorship opportunities for researchers in machine learning, both as mentors and mentees, with a special focus on underrepresented minorities. We think that these mentor sessions are a beneficial outcome of the need to go online. In physical conferences, it was harder to find a small group setting for meeting mid-career or senior members of research communities — in Mementor it is much easier.

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