During a pandemic is a critical time for researchers working on advances in smart health to come together. During a pandemic is also the worst time for people to come together.
University of Arizona staff combined technologies to meet the challenge of remotely hosting principal investigators in the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Health program.
Electrical and Computer Engineering’s Dr. Jerzy Rozenblit was chair of Smart Health in the AI and COVID Era, the NSF’s 2021 two-day workshop. Dr. Rozenblit turned to Engineering’s head of IT Leo Enfield for help in developing a virtual option. And Leo, in turn, turned to the campus community for ideas.
Malcolm Elliott, from UITS Academic Technologies, offered support for setting up Zoom webinars, so that panelists from outside the University could present. Event co-chair Dr. Minsik Hong, from Dr. Rozenblit’s lab, suggested social networking in Gather.town, a virtual environment you navigate and interact in using an avatar, similar to being in a video game.
With these two platforms selected, it took a village to make the workshop happen. As Arizona focused on the virtual event, co-chair Dr. Fatemeh Afghah of Northern Arizona University handled the event webpage and registration.
Hannah McCormick, from Geosciences, helped customize the standard Gather appearance. She configured the meeting spaces and tested using Zoom and Gather together. ECE student Tia Hunt created a comprehensive user guide to walk attendees through using Zoom and Gather for the conference.
The agenda included 6 breakout sessions on topics ranging from interpreting medical images to data infrastructure. A single user is not able to create multiple Zoom sessions at one time. So for the breakout sessions, Leo used a virtual server to create VM hosts, and logged into Zoom with service accounts used by Mining Engineering for online classes. He created a session for each breakout topic, plus another session that was a “support” meeting that any of the hosts or moderators could jump into for help.
Leo made Arizona student volunteers. Including student workers from the 24/7 Support Center, co-hosts for each of the breakouts so that they could give access to the moderators. During the workshop day-of, Leo had six computers arranged around him so he would be able to jump into any session.
Malcolm ran practice sessions and Dr. Hong created a timeline script showing what was happening when, including all hosts and moderators, and what they would need.
The workshop also included a poster session. ECE student Andre Schreiber took a standard Gather boardroom and transformed it into a hall with rows of tables. Andre and students from Northern Arizona University— Ashwija Reddy Korenda, Mahsa Keshavarz, and Mohammed Gharib—numbered the tables, uploaded posters to each table, and let poster presenters know where their poster was located.
The day of the event arrived. The first thing an attendee did was go to the provided Gather.town web location. They created an avatar, and connected their microphone, speakers, and camera.
As they entered the area, they saw the common conference area, with private meeting rooms available, a beach for socializing, the conference halls, and poster session hall. As they navigated around with arrow keys, when they walked by someone their picture popped up and they could interact. Inside the meeting rooms they had access to other tools, like whiteboards.
When an attendee walked into a conference hall, they saw the conference webinar in progress. Alternately, they had the Zoom link to join the webinar directly, outside Gather. In the poster session hall, they could visit each table and talk to the poster presenter and the others in the conversation.
Despite the restrictions on travel, over 100 researchers were able to learn, collaborate, and interact in both planned and organic ways, with virtual face-to-face interactions. The entire event served a national audience using the existing campus license for Zoom and $700 in Gather.town billing—along with expertise and support from across campus.
How Leo monitored six breakout rooms at the same time.