Lessons Learned: How to do Map Stuff

Friends, I was very pleased (and overwhelmed) to have hundreds(!) of you join us during the How to do Map Stuff event yesterday. If you missed some or all of it, no worries! Most everything was recorded. You can find most links in this YouTube playlist.

There is one other recordings that isn’t on that list yet:

I had never done anything like this before, and neither had most of the presenters, so here, I want to share some loosely organized reflections and lessons learned.

This whole thing was pretty ad hoc. It came from an idea I had in the middle of the night: I already do occasional map livestreams, so maybe if a group of other map people did them on the same day, that would be fun? I announced it without much ahead planning, and made things up as I went along.

Things quickly grew beyond my expectations, Originally, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get more than one or two other people to present, and that we wouldn’t have more than a dozen people in the audience (which I would be fine with, but I worried would make the other streamers feel bad). But I decided to give it a go, nonetheless. We ended up with audiences in the hundreds, and 26 streamers, which was amazing, but also offered some challenges, as you’ll see below.

Time Zones

When you’re planning an in-person conference, you can safely assume that your presenters and attendees are all in the same time zone. But How to do Map Stuff presenters came from around the world, from Hong Kong to Louisiana to Munich, and so they were all awake at different times. When it came time to arrange the schedule, I had to scramble around on Twitter and other sources to figure out where people lived, so that I didn’t ask them to present during a time when they should be sleeping. When presenters signed up for the event, I didn’t think to ask them what time zone they were in, but I would certainly do so now.

During an in-person conference, your presenters are usually available for the entire duration of the conference; they’ve taken time off from work to be there. But, most people aren’t going to take the day off for your virtual event, and so one other thing I didn’t plan for was that people need to fit in work alongside their presentations. Fortunately, I didn’t run into too much trouble there, but I did make a couple of rearrangements to fit people’s work schedules.

In sum, my advice to you is: when presenters sign up, ask them what time zone they are in, and when they are available. Having that information in advance would have allowed me to schedule everyone with much less hassle (both for me and for them).

The distribution of my presenters pushed me to think about the time zone of the event’s audience, as well. I mostly know American cartographers, and so I figured that they would be the only people who might hear about it (again, I didn’t expect it to generate so much enthusiasm). So, the schedule is centered on time zones in the US/Canada. But, I made the event longer than I had originally planned, pushing the schedule to start earlier and end later. In this way, folks in Europe/Africa would be able to catch a few hours of presentations before going to bed, and people in East Asia and the Pacific could wake up and see some of the event as well. I think the long schedule may have contributed to some audience fatigue, but I’ll talk more about that later.

International Date Line

This is really an extension of my comments about time zones, but it’s important enough that it gets its own header. Due to the International Date Line, your event may be on a different day depending on where people live. I live in Wisconsin, where How to do Map Stuff was on April 29th. For a person in South Korea, though, it was on April 30th. I tried to be very clear, on the schedule, on tweets, etc., to indicate both days, so that no one got confused.

To keep everything fairly clear, with an audience scattered around the world, I listed six time zones for each presentation in the schedule, as well as some date indicators, so that people would have some reference points.

Screen Shot 2020-04-30 at 10.40.00 AM.png

Google Sheets

Speaking of scheduling, I made an ad hoc decision to publish the schedule on Google Sheets, which turned out to be a bit of a problem.

During the initial sign-up phase, someone on Twitter asked if I could post the list of talks that had already been submitted. So, I linked a Google Sheet into the Google Form I was using to accept submissions. And people started circulating the Google Sheet link, and it became one of the main places people learned about the event. So, I decided to just formalize it and make that link the go-to place for the schedule.

However, it turns out that only 100 people can look at a Google Sheet at once before it starts to lock people out. And at times, more than 100 people wanted to see the schedule. Fortunately, someone on Twitter mentioned that they could not access the schedule, and I looked into it. It turns out you can hit a button to “Publish” a Google Sheet, which makes it so that more people can view it, while reducing some of the features (no one was going to edit it except me, so this didn’t matter). But it also moved the schedule to a new URL, so I had to scramble to circulate the new link one day before the event. Also, the “Published” version of the sheet can take up to 5 minutes to display updates that I might make, which can be a bit of trouble when making last-second updates to people’s video links.

Gender

It’s no particular secret that, when looking at conference speaker lineups, women are underrepresented. At a large conference like NACIS, women typically deliver 35–40% of the presentations. About a third of the presenters at How to do Map Stuff were women, which, while in line with other events, is certainly not great. At first it looked like that percentage might be even lower; as speakers began to sign up, there were almost no women among them.

I wondered why this even might attract proportionally fewer women, and my colleague Meghan Kelly suggested that it might be because women disportionately are tasked with childcare and other household management, both of which are in high demand now that schools are closed and families are home more. I also came across this tweet thread which points out how the same phenomenon is affecting journal submissions.

Now, I mentioned that, while things started slow, How to do Map Stuff eventually reached about the same percentage of women speakers as a conference like NACIS. I think this is partly because I tweeted out an appeal asking specifically for more women to sign up, and the folks at the Women in GIS and Women in Geospatial+ Twitter accounts, among others, were kind enough to help spread the word among their contacts. But, in hindsight, I’m not sure about this approach. If women are volunteering to present because they’re much busier than usual during quarantine, is it fair to then make a special appeal to them to do more work by presenting at an event?

Once I had my speaker list in hand, I tried to amplify (or maybe not de-amplify) women’s voices a bit in the schedule, by making sure they were never scheduled to go at the same time on adjacent tracks. I’m not sure if it helped at all, but I thought it was worth a try.

Breaks

I initially only built one break in the schedule, about halfway through. A few others eventually appeared due to presenters dropping or shuffling around. Since all of the audience was operating on different sleep/eating schedules around the world, I could not really plan a “good” time for breaks. So I left it to them to wander off and come back, as needed.

However, more breaks would have been good to have in the schedule, because they offer slots for on-the-fly rescheduling. Due to technical problems, one presenter could not make their original time slot (and some others had close calls). But, that presenter eventually figured those problems out and was able to move to a break later in the day, with enough time to spread the word about a schedule update. We could also have just had a third track, but I wanted to avoid splitting the audience too much, and so it was nice to have a space in the existing track for these sorts of emergencies.

Even though they might not have been ideally timed for the food/sleep/bathroom/email needs of every audience member, I expect viewers might have welcomed another break or two in the schedule, as well. They would have offered a bit more time to catch up, digest, and ponder.

Timing

All presentations were back-to-back, with no gaps. So, viewers needed to immediately switch over to another presenter. I’m sure some viewers started tuning out when a presenter was nearly, but not quite, finished, as they prepared to move to the next person. None of this was ideal, though it wasn’t a huge problem.

I went with this schedule because there’s an easy-to-remember appeal of having every presenter start on the hour, or the half-hour. Television shows keep this kind of back-to-back schedules (though they have commercials for padding). I figured it would be more cumbersome to tell people, “This person starts at 1:05, and this other person begins at 3:20, etc.”

Probably in the future I’d just ask presenters to conclude 5 minutes early. This keeps the even scheduling of 30- and 60-minute time slots, but still gives audiences time to refocus and move on to the next person.

Overlaps

As in all conferences, some people ran out of time, or ran over their time. One nice thing about doing all this online, with separate video feeds from each presenter: if one person exceeds their time, they don’t prevent the next person on the schedule from starting on time. The audience can switch over if they choose. Of course, it also means the two speakers are competing for audience, which isn’t ideal, but at least it’s not quite as bad a situation as when this happens during an in-person conference, where the audience has no choice and the subsequent speaker just has to wait. I wasn’t able to catch the end of everyone’s presentations, but I did hear a few people pushing themselves to wrap up on time so that the audience could move on, which I appreciate.

Zoom vs. YouTube

Let’s get to the big one. Most people who’ve done screensharing and web presentations have done so through Zoom, or Skype, or a similar video-conferencing program. I’ve also seen some in-person conferences select Zoom when switching over to an online conference. Zoom is familiar to a lot of people. But instead, I encouraged presenters to do an entirely different workflow: livestreaming on YouTube. There are some good reasons for this, as well as some disadvantages.

To a certain extent, it’s about choosing the right tool for the job. Zoom/Skype/etc. are designed specifically for peer-to-peer conferences. For meetings between you and your friends/colleagues/etc. where more than one person is expected to speak, and where interaction needs to be close to real-time.

Professional (or at least frequent) livestreamers (of games, crafts, etc.) rarely use those programs. Instead, they use special software (like a program called OBS) to capture video of their desktop, and then send that video feed to YouTube/Twitch/etc., where it’s distributed to an audience via a website (vs. Zoom, where you need to run an external application). This workflow is designed for presentation from a single person, rather than Zoom’s peer-to-peer interaction.

Zoom is familiar to a lot of people, and it’s fair to say it’s easier for presenters. I think the audience experience isn’t as smooth, though. Audiences have to download Zoom and leave their browser, instead of skipping from one simple YouTube URL to another. The chat isn’t as clearly integrated into the presentation; on the Zoom presentation I watched, I saw less chat interaction from the audience than I did on YouTube streams. These bits of interface may seem like tiny thing, but an extra click or two really matters in terms of audience experience and engagement, as UI designers will tell you. YouTube makes it just a hair easier on audiences, and I think that’s important.

YouTube also offers one nice archiving advantage as well: once your stream is done, it stores the video recording of your presentation at the exact same link. So anyone who misses the presentation doesn’t need to find another link to watch the replay. Another small way the audience experience is smoother.

Streaming via livestream software also allows for fancier setups than just a simple screenshare. As we saw with some presenters, they overlaid their camera feed onto their desktop, or switched to static images, or even had cool animated transitions between scenes. So, there’s more opportunities to get creative, or make a more engaging audience experience.

There are no audience limits on YouTube. Zoom only supports 100 people for free, and we had a couple presentations were people couldn’t get in. Of course, that was also because we didn’t realize that so many people would want to show up to the event (I clearly remember telling one presenter, weeks ago, that the audience limit would not be a problem).

Zoom allows audience members to ask questions via audio (and video, if you like), which is more like in-person conferences, and that is nice to have at times. YouTube will only let people type in the chat window. But on the other hand, a chat window lets people ask questions without interrupting the presenter (and lets audience members answer each others questions), which is a different sort of advantage. Zoom has a chat window, too, but again, it’s not utilized as much. Also, since Zoom defaults to letting the whole audience have audio, you also have issues where someone’s unmuted. During one person’s presentation, an audience member had music going on in the background while they were unmuted, and so the presenter had to ask them to mute themselves (or track them down in the list of dozens of participants and mute them).

So, in sum, I’d say: Zoom is generally easier on presenters, but a bit less smooth for the audience, and streaming via YouTube and broadcasting software is harder on presenters, but gives a nicer audience experience. They each have their upsides and downsides (some of which I haven’t covered here), but having presented on both of them, and been an audience member on both of them, I’d much rather use YouTube for something like How to do Map Stuff. Zoom et al. still have their place (and I use them for other things).

So, that’s why I asked presenters to go the YouTube route (also, it’s because that’s what I was familiar with, and I was only familiar with it because when I started streaming last year, I just looked at what other people were doing, and it seemed to be the way to go). And I must emphasize that the presenters did a lot of work to make that happen. Most of them had never livestreamed before, and they took the time to learn new, more complex software, and work through technical problems.

Technical Problems

And there were technical problems. There was the online equivalent of “my laptop doesn’t connect to the projector,” which was people’s feeds not quite starting. One person’s computer crashed in the middle of the presentation.

What was encouraging, though, was to see the support from the audience during these times. There were various messages of “we believe in you!” or “we’ll wait for you!” as people worked through issues. We are fortunate to have a supportive community, and that’s something that makes me feel more comfortable when I do my livestreams. Because things will certainly go wrong when you have this many people presenting.

And sometimes there’s not much you can do about it. But I emphasized to the presenters that if all else fails, just tell the audience to go get a sandwich and enjoy the next set of presentations. Because, in the end, we’re all just casually coming together for free presentations, with no pressure. I think the audience comments demonstrated that. Also I will now use the phrase, “sandwich time” to describe a problem where you have to give up on what you were planning to do.

Some presenters had problems with video/audio quality, which surprised me. One person mentioned that they had shared their screen very often through other applications and hadn’t had any issues, but when they streamed to YouTube, suddenly their framerate was poor. I’d not run into that, but several people did. I couldn’t think of a reason for streaming to YouTube to be worse than doing a Zoom call, but I ran this by someone who’s been livestreaming for years, and she said:

One really needs to actually dig into the stream settings and tweak the max bitrates to accommodate their connection, but that’s definitely a steep learning curve for a first timer and requires multiple streams to dial in.

So, it sounds to me like maybe Zoom/Skype/etc. are more generous/forgiving in their settings, while OBS (the broadcasting software people were using to stream to YouTube) requires a little more fine-tuning to get right. It’s something I never thought about, and thus didn’t prepare presenters for, because my streams have always gone fine with the default settings OBS had suggested for me.

Latency

One thing that presenters and audience members noticed was the latency: the time delay between when the presenter said something, and when the audience heard it. That’s not actually a bug, but a feature. The latency seems to be a little larger nowadays than it used to be (I saw 15 seconds on my stream, vs. about half that last year), but in any case, it’s meant to buffer the video for the audience. We’ve all been on Zoom/Skype/etc. calls where the video gets fuzzy or the audio cuts out. Sometimes that’s due to issues with the person sending (see above about fine-tuning OBS settings), but sometimes that’s also due to your internet connection. If you remember the early days of internet video, they would sometimes pause and stutter as your incoming data stream caught up. So now, videos are buffered, and YouTube handles this for you by introducing a delay between the presenter and audience, to prevent this particular form of quality reduction.

It can sometimes be a bit awkward to communicate with your audience on delay, but I’ve found you (and they) will get used to it quickly.

Audience Fatigue?

I noticed, as the day went on, fewer people were tuning in. We had 300–400 early on, and by the end of the event, we had about 75. Some of this is likely due to time zones. Europeans were asleep by this point, and as evening approached for Americans, many of them probably switched off to focus on dinner and family time. Folks in East Asia & the Pacific started tuning in, but I think there were proportionally fewer of them, especially as it was a conference broadcast in English.

Some of it, though, could simply be audience fatigue. It may have been fun and enlightening, but it’s still a lot of content to absorb, and our brains become full and I expect some people just got tired and decided to catch the recordings later on.

So, instead, it could have been good to split this into multiple days. However, I would want to change around the hours of the presentations each day, so that there was still content easily accessible (time-wise) to folks outside of the US. So, maybe one day that starts early in the United States (for people in Europe/Africa to watch), and one day that goes later (for people in East Asia/Pacific).

Again, I was just hoping to get 3 or 4 presenters, so I never planned to accomodate this idea. Once I had to schedule over 25 presentesr, I did consider expanding the event, but I figured it was too late. I had already advertised the day, and presenters were planning on presenting on that particular day, and I didn’t want to ask a bunch of them to move. It would be something to plan in advance, next time.

Again?

I’ve seen some people on Twitter saying they hope this sort of event happens again soon. That’s a nice thought, but it could be a long while before I’m up for organizing an event at this scale. This turned out to be more work than I had anticipated. I thought at first that I would just collect presenter names, put them in a schedule, and then everyone would do their own things. And, certainly, the presenters did shoulder most of the labor burden; they deserve a lot of praise for their effort.

Nonetheless, organizing was still more of a challenge than I bargained for. Before the event, there was scheduling and re-scheduling, and there was a lot of advising of presenters as many of them prepared to livestream for the first time. Once the event started, I didn’t catch most of the content — I was switching constantly between

  • monitoring Twitter,
  • answering questions on my blog and by email,
  • monitoring the start of everyone’s presentation to make sure they got started correctly,
  • helping troubleshoot when they did not,
  • making last-minute schedule adjustments and announcements,
  • watching streams for problems (rather than content), and
  • being a ball of stress and nervousness (I’m a nervous presenter, and so I was empathetically nervous for most people going live).

I do not recite this list for your praise or pity; this is mostly for the benefit of future planners of such events, so that they have a sense of what they might encounter.

So, I definitely need a break =). But, it’s important to note that such events in the future don’t have to involve me at all. My hope is that the presenters will all keep going with livestreaming on their own, and perhaps inspire some of the event’s audience to do so, as well! Even before the pandemic, I felt that livestreaming was a good fit for cartography, and we could use more of it. We can share planned demos, or even just turn on a feed for a few hours and let people drop in to watch us work.

Worth It

Despite the stresses, it was certainly worth it. I hadn’t really anticipated the response we would receive. Hundreds of people tuned in, from Egypt to Brazil to Indonesia to Sweden. That still seems crazy to me.

More important than audience sizes though, was the emotional impact. I had thought people would find How to do Map Stuff interesting, and fun, and maybe just a little bit connective. But the response was emotionally deeper than I had expected. More than one person shared with me the great joy they felt, how they were buzzing with adrenaline, and how, importantly, it lifted their spirit during a rough time. That means a lot to me to hear.

2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned: How to do Map Stuff

  1. Hi Daniel, greetings from Berlin! I just wanted to say that even though I only got to view a little more than one presentation trying to fit it in between getting my son into bed and myself going to bed I commend your hard work! It was interesting here to read about your lessons learned and I hope that such a project will happen again, just as well, if not better than this first one. Thanks again! Joshua

  2. Pingback: Lessons Learned: How to do #Map Stuff – GeoNe.ws

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