Portrait Thilo Sauter
© Rafaela Pröll

IEEE ETFA: Conferencing despite COVID

The 25th IEEE ETFA Conference (International Conference on Emerging Technologies and Factory Automation), an international meeting for experts in the field of automation technology, was planned as a conference with around 400 participants. All of them were supposed to have come to Vienna in person. But then coronavirus happened. Which posed a challenge for the conference chair, TU professor Thilo Sauter. "We realized back in March that we would need a Plan B," Sauter remembers the spring of 2020. "We decided pretty quickly to organize the IEEE ETFA Conference as a hybrid conference." Virtual participation via the internet was to be as much an option as being in Vienna in person. – A decision that was also based on the feedback from the potential participants: "We saw that there really is a massive desire to attend conferences in person. The quality of the exchange is on a completely different level." That's when the real challenge started for Sauter and his team.

Safety first

"We had to completely rethink how to organize the conferences," Sauter describes the situation in the spring and summer. A safety concept was drawn up. Hygiene and distancing rules were just as important as efficient contact tracing, in order to be able to quickly determine who was sitting where and when. Supposedly trivial procedures required a lot of thought: "How do I get 70 participants into a room relatively quickly and how can I still trace who sat next to whom?" Yet apart from the safety questions, the organizers were primarily occupied by how the hybrid transfer of knowledge would take place. After all, the content matters.

Creating good connections

"During the preparations, we constantly had to ask ourselves how the conference would work for remote participants," says Sauter about the new planning process that had become necessary. "We always looked at the conference procedure from both sides first, so that we could also offer the virtual participants an appropriate conference experience." The presentations on site in Vienna were streamed to the web. "The virtual participants recorded their presentations on video beforehand. The contributions were recorded to minimize technical problems," says Sauter. However, discussions were held via live link-ups. "Our primary goal was to create the best possible connection between both groups in terms of content."

Safely over the finish line

Given the international nature of IEEE ETFA, there was an additional organizational challenge. The participants came from 30 countries around the world, from Australia to Japan, China and the USA to Russia and South Africa. Sauter: "The timing of the virtual presentations had to be coordinated to the countries' respective time zones. That was new for us." In the end, everything passed off without a hitch. 120 participants were at the 25th IEEE ETFA in Vienna in person. 230 took part in the conference virtually. The safety concept at the event worked out. The contact tracing measures did not impair the tight workflow of the conference. There was great discipline among the guests as regards hygiene and social distancing. Sauter's summary: "The feedback from the participants was excellent. We are very satisfied with how the conference went, despite the difficult circumstances."

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