I am writing this after an action-packed week co-organizing and lecturing at the first ever international virtual Spring school for biomedical visualization. With this, I wanted to share some thoughts and resources gathered over the week.
Initial thoughts around launching an educational platform for the visualization of biological and medical data were shared at a Shonan seminar on ‘Formalizing Biological and Medical Visualization’. This trip is also known as the last of my travels in the before-times. Then the pandemic hit and everyone had to move their teaching to digital format. We realized that as people moved to digital teaching, we would have an opportunity to bring these lectures together on a shared platform. We considered Medvis.org as such a platform, but did not fit the goal of uniting the biological and medical data visualization communities. To seed our new platform with excellent base content, we landed on planning a Spring School aimed at students and PhD candidates, Bio+Med+Vis Spring. We would host this as a virtual event, due to pandemic restrictions. This allowed us to have a unique opportunity for international lecturers and participants.
Due to the combined networks of the organizers and the online setting, we could to offer a program filled with top international visualization researchers from various backgrounds. As we opened for registration, we were expecting maybe 50 participants to sign up. This would have been fine as the main goal was gathering resources for our platform. Above all initial expectations, we ended up with about 350 registered participants. While this is wonderful and maybe even over what in-person EuroVis draws, this also generates organizational complexity. A regular Zoom room with 350 for example will degrade recording quality as chances are high that someone unmutes or does something strange. Another major goal of a Spring school was to connect people worldwide at all career stages. However, from experience we all know these connections aren’t easily made in a virtual set-up, especially not at this scale.
Here’s what we ended up with in terms of setup:
- Before the week started, we opened up a Miro board for people to introduce themselves with a photo if they wanted. Originally we planned to have people introduce themselves during the opening, but this really doesn’t scale. It turned into a nice visual with pictures and sticky notes.
- The lectures ran in a Zoom Webinar format. This allows for less interactivity with participants, but more control over the sessions. All talks were live to minimize preparation time for speakers and maximize engagement. We asked for a 500 participant capacity, but I think higher numbers are also possible. As we were planning on offering recordings of the lectures on our platform afterwards, this was really the ideal setup, in my opinion. Roughly 100 participants attended the lectures live, though this number dropped a fair bit as the week went on. In part this is also due to timezone complexity. I heard one participant got up at 4 am daily to join our sessions!
- Participants could ask questions and interact with each other via a Discord server, obviously inspired by EuroVis and IEEE VIS last year. We had one channel per session, but also general channels such as #hiring, which were well used. The voice channels were less often used in breaks. I think the main reason is that the breaks were too short to really do anything except catch your breath and maybe get a drink or snack.
- We had a social event running in Congregate. Congregate features virtual tables of different sizes that people can click on to join for group voice or video chats. Though only around 50 joined, I think it worked well and I met a lot of new cool people as well as old friends this way! Perhaps we should have planned this earlier in the week or opened it every day instead of the Discord voice channels.
- This whole Spring school ran entirely on volunteer work with zero budget. None of the organizers and lecturers were paid and everyone generously contributed their time to this. This also made it possible to offer free registration. While we were endorsed by Biovis, VCBM, and MMIV, we did not need to attract sponsors in this format. Of course when you think about time costs, many people worldwide spend many hours preparing all this. The University of Bergen offered their Zoom webinar license and support for the set-up. I would like to thank Håkon Øren at the IT department for helping us with this.
- Using the same Zoom Webinar for the entire week made it easy to join. However, it was not so easy to go ‘offline’ in the short breaks between sessions without kicking all attendees out. To avoid this, we left the webinar running in breaks. This made informal pre-lecture banter between organizers and speakers public for all to hear. I heard that my fangirling over meeting VTK’s Will Shroeder was indeed quite wholesome on the Discord :D. One participant noted this could be one reason why people didn’t join the Discord voice chats in the break. This could very well be the case, as I consider my banter to be high quality content which is not to be missed ;)!
- While I am normally all about the work-life balance and do not work evenings and weekends, I was certaintly not this week. In mornings I was doing my regular work and from 1pm opening the webinar for speakers to practice their set-up (if not in a conflicting meeting). From 2pm, we went live and as the only ones with UiB accounts and recording privileges, Jan and myself had to be at every lecture the whole week. When the program ended at 8pm, I would wait for Zoom post-processing to finish, terrified of losing the recordings. I was home after 10pm most days and insanely tired of all the screen staring, meme-ing it up on Discord, etc.
- One of the lecturers could not make it due to unforeseen circumstances. I offered to do a replacement lecture, but as my days were packed, I only had about an hour to prepare one. I think it worked out okish in the end, but it really felt like badly executed improv comedy on my end.
To wrap this overly long post up, here are my final thoughts on this week. It was incredible to see people worldwide coming together spending their time either giving lectures or listening and participating in the discussions. A lot of the lecturers attended other lectures to learn more about specifics of other sub-fields. I learned a lot about biological data visualization, and I imagine the biovis people learned a lot about medical visualization. Newcomers to the field hopefully learned a ton about visualization in general as well.
While at conferences, I sometimes feel like only a handful are doing biomedical visualization, this event made me feel like we have a lively community and there is a lot of interest from people at all career phases and across disciplines. Though it was very time-intensive, I would do it again in a heartbeat, though not immediately probably :). We have heard so much positive feedback from attendees and lecturers which made the whole thing very rewarding. Thanks everyone!
Here are the resources I lured you here with in the intro text. Note that they are only shared at the very end on purpose to reward patient readers 😀
- The number one resource I wish I had when I was a student are the recorded video lectures. Our resident video editor MVP, Sherin Sugathan, has worked tirelessly to make these high-quality materials available already during the week. We are still post-processing some, but all except one lecture will be available on our program page and YouTube channel. Hit like and subscribe!
- Through the #twitter-handles Discord channel, we gathered Twitter handles (surprisingly) of lecturers and participants and compiled a Twitter list. If you follow this list, you follow 57 and counting biomedical visualization Twitterers (is that a word?). Check it out here and give us a follow.
- A lot of the lecturers shared their slide-decks on Discord. We still have to check whether they are ok to post on our platform webpage as well, so feel free to keep an eye on https://biomedvis.github.io/
This did not entirely turn out to be the short blog I intended, but well, here we are! I’m off to enjoy a long Pentecost weekend, I hope you are able to do the same!