Technical conferences in the age of Covid – OCEANS 2020, a success story

EarthzineCovid-19, Oceans, Oceans 2020, Singapore


The first ever virtual OCEANS conference, Global OCEANS 2020: Singapore-U.S. Gulf Coast, was held during 5-31 Oct. This conference was also unique as it combined 2 regional OCEANS into a single Global OCEANS.

18 February, 2021

Venugopalan Pallayil & Craig A. Peterson, General Co-Chairs, Global OCEANS 2020

(This article was originally published in the OES Beacon and is reproduced here.)

The first ever virtual IEEE OES/MTS OCEANS conference, Global OCEANS 2020: Singapore-U.S. Gulf Coast, was held during 05 to 31 Oct 2020. This virtual conference was also unique as it combined two regional OCEANS into a single Global OCEANS.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for delegates to meet and greet through an in-person conference. However, technology has made it possible to keep us connected over virtual platforms.

This may not have been a replacement for the usual in-person conference, but we had made every effort to make it as rewarding and exciting as possible working within the various constraints. The decision to host a virtual conference has been based on our desire to stay active, engaging and relevant, considering that the ongoing pandemic and its effects are likely to stay for a year or more.

It was also the best way (and possibly the only alternative) to provide an opportunity for our researchers, who have spent time and resources, to prepare their research contributions and showcase them to a wider scientific community. It was also an opportunity for many of our ‘old schoolers’, who have not been too optimistic about success of a virtual OCEANS, to get accustomed to virtual technology plat-forms. Whether we like it or not, virtual conferences have become the order of the day and we expect the trend to continue at least for the year 2021, and perhaps even beyond.


In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the OCEANS2020 conference went virtual and global.

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Way to Virtual Conference

OCEANS 2020 Singapore, which was originally scheduled during 6-9 April 2020 was initially rescheduled to Aug 2020, when the first signs of the COVID-19 virus spread became evident. This was also considering the fact that a good percentage of the submitted research papers came from China, and our proximity to where the virus had first been detected. The above decision was taken when the COVID-19 was not yet declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the transmission of the virus was mostly contained to Asia. However, soon after, most of Europe and the U.S.A. started to feel the havoc created by the deadly virus, and the COVID-19 was declared as a pandemic by WHO. Many countries declared travel restrictions as well as a shutdown of all main businesses and meetings. This forced Singapore to move the conference into a virtual mode, and the plans were underway to host a virtual conference. At the same time, the OCEANS 2020 Gulf Coast organizing committee was also considering moving into a ‘virtual OCEANS,’ as the spread of CV-19 in the U.S became uncontrollably high and in-person conferences were banned for the foreseeable future. A decision was soon taken, with the approval of both local organizing committees (LOCs) and JOAB, in consultation with the society leadership, to host a joint virtual conference. Two of the Co-Chairs of the two organizing committees held many meetings online prior to this decision, which helped planning to smoothly progress. A joint virtual conference made more sense both technically and operationally, as many delegates would not have wanted to or been able to attend two virtual OCEANS back to back.

Global Organising Committee, PCO Selection and Virtual Platform Selection

The "Virtual Lobby" for the conference

The "Virtual Lobby" for the OCEANS2020 conference, where delegates can choose where to go 'conferencing' next !

The first step in the organization of a joint virtual conference was the formation of an organizing committee to run the show. The easiest way to do this was to merge the two LOCs, and that is exactly what we did. We held our first meeting in June 2020 and we had little over 3 months to plan and execute the confer-ence organization. Since then, the Global Organising Commit-tee met twice every week to charter, discuss, and monitor the progress of work towards a successful execution.

There were two major steps involved before we could move with the organization. One was the selection of a PCO and the other was identifying a virtual platform suitable to host our conference. MCI USA had been appointed as the PCO to run North American in-person conferences from 2016–2021, how-ever, they did not have good experience running virtual technical conferences. Furthermore, they had limited exposure to virtual platforms. The committee had to come out with a new SOW for the PCO, as there existed no SOW pertaining to virtual conferences. Note also that the committee was inexperienced with organizing a virtual conference and unfamiliar with most jargon associated with it. Nevertheless, in the interest of time and ease of transition, MCI-USA was maintained as the PCO to run the Global OCEANS 2020 conference. The willingness and confidence shown by MCI-USA also boosted the confidence of the joint organizing committee.

Prior to joining hands, the two LOCs had already run through some of the available virtual platforms that would be suitable to run OCEANS. There was a whole suite of virtual platforms ranging from simple webinar meetings to highly complex 3D Avatar featured versions. The PCO had recommended two platforms for our consideration, and the committee selected Cloud Conventions as our choice of virtual platform. Though MCI-USA had no prior experience working with this platform, they did a good job of hosting the technical programs, social programs, and exhibition in the short time available. The only downside was that the committee could not see the operational virtual platform until 2 days before the actual conference starting date.

Technical Programme

The technical programme had all the main components of an in-person OCEANS conference. This included the following:

  1. Plenaries or Keynote speeches (see additional coverage on plenaries here and here)
  2. Town Hall presentations
  3. Panel discussions
  4. Technical presentations
  5. Tutorials
  6. Student Poster Competitions

There were over 500 technical papers presented during this conference. The delegates were required to pre-record their presentations and upload the video on to the virtual platform. The technical presentations were available on demand through-out the conference dates. The attendees could post their queries in a chat box, and the respective presenters could visit and post their answers as needed. The delegates were also required to provide a PDF of their full paper for publication on the IEEE Xplore database.

There were many plenary and panel sessions, covering various aspects of ocean science and technologies, delivered by experts who are renowned in their respective fields. The plenaries and panel session presentations were almost all pre-recorded, but all question and answer sessions were streamed live immediately after the presentations were over. There were also Townhall presentations specific to local themes, some of which were streamed live.

The student poster competitions (SPC) were held in two tracks; the Singapore track and Gulf Coast track. Each track had its own 3-podium prize winners. 24 students from 15 different countries participated and presented their works during the SPC event. A joint prize presentation ceremony was show-cased where the winners were announced, and where the sup-porting organisations were also acknowledged for their contributions to the conduction of the SPC. Thanks to Office of Naval Research Global, Schmidt Ocean Institute, NOAA and University of Southern Mississippi for supporting the SPC event.

There were four tutorials and one workshop, which were offered free for registered participants. The objective of this was to boost and supplement attendee participation. Details of the various technical programmes are still listed on the Global OCEANS conference website. The registered delegates can download the proceedings from this link.

The main technical live sessions were planned until 14 October after which all presentations were made available on demand until 31 October.


Women-in-Engineering panel at OCEANS 2020

Women-in-Engineering panel at OCEANS 2020

As it was the first time a virtual OCEANS exhibition was being organized, neither the organizing committee nor the PCO had a pre-planned marketing strategy. Strategies were developed on the go, and over extended discussions at GOC meetings. MCI-USA rose up to the challenges of marketing, and came out with exhibitor packages which were finalized after discussion at the GOC meetings. It was satisfying that the conference was able to meet 90% of its targeted exhibition sales goal.

A virtual exhibit hall was setup using the Cloud Convention’s conference platform in which the exhibitors were allocated booths. Specific exhibit hours were included for attendees to visit the booths. Depending on the subscribed exhibition package, exhibitors were given options to organize meetings with the visitors in private virtual rooms. Participating exhibitors are shown below.Women in Engineering Panel.

Social Programmes

To keep the ‘taste and flavor’ of OCEANS intact, the virtual conference also hosted events like Women in Engineering and Young Professionals meetings. These events were not only very professionally organized, but also well attended. All of the talks were pre-recorded and streamed during allocated time slots. The videos were available on-demand. Other social programmes included IEEE OES and MTS award functions. The OES award function will be reported separately in this Newsletter.


The OCEANS global organizing committee, society leadership, and our PCOs have all put in a relentless effort over many months to deliver a successful virtual OCEANS conference. Our inexperience in the area of virtual conferences presented many challenges. For example, it was a challenge to sync our operations across the globe. It was also a challenge to find suitable event timings to reach out to our global audience. Nevertheless, we believe that we have done a great job in the short time available to us. We had over 1000 attendees who had registered for the conference, and considering this was our first attempt at a virtual conference, the numbers are quite satisfying. We would like to hear from you on the positives of the conference, and we also welcome comments on areas that need improvement.

We would like to place on record our sincere gratitude to our honorary chairs, plenary, panel and townhall speakers, tutorial and workshop presenters, student poster competition judges and also to the technical paper presenting authors and the many attendees. We would also like to thank our reviewers, patrons, exhibitors, supporting organisations and host institutions for their kind support, which made this conference technically and financially possible.

The support extended by IEEE HQ was also commendable. The GOC and Societies worked with their Event Emergency Response Team (EERT) to have our conferences cancelled or rescheduled in conversation with the venues, contractors, and PCOs. The EERT, along with Veraprise, helped transfer the electronic Copyright Forms (eCF) from Singapore OCEANS into the Gulf Coast OCEANS, to make a single Global OCEANS technical programme. Relevant budget approvals were also fast-tracked so that the committee could make the necessary progress in our activities without any delay, and still meet financial requirements.

We hope all of you have enjoyed our ‘virtual technical feast’ on oceans science and technology over 25 days. We look forward to your continued support for future virtual or hybrid OCEANS conferences. Though we all have missed the in-person conferences both in Singapore and the Gulf Coast, we still have an opportunity to meet in 2024 and 2023, respectively.


Read more articles on OCEANS 2020 conference coverage or on UN Decade of Ocean Sciences-related coverage.