Even though the Codebridge Youth team has hosted many fantastic events, moving them online because of COVID has been more challenging than we thought.
Civic tech has always been about enabling transparency, public participation, and societal progress with digital tools, often negating the need to physically meet or gather at venues. Even though virtual meetings and webinars were a natural step in that direction, we (the Codebridge Youth Team) were still far from operating almost exclusively in a virtual space.
Even though we are a tech organization that has successfully hosted in-person events, the art of hosting online events had to be learned from scratch. We knew that it was an eventuality but we had no idea just how fast we would have to make that switch. Our Codebridge Youth project primarily operates in rural areas, with neither adequate resources nor internet infrastructure to host online events without challenges.
It wasn’t something that we could put on hold either as the government was making decisions at a rapid rate and many communities were heavily relying on Covid-19 relief as promised by the President. We found ourselves having to think outside the box about disseminating information and engaging our constituents in civic education. But also realising that the immediate needs and fears of our communities were about survival, about social distancing, about food security, about just making it through each day.
Zoom Webinar: our buzzword of the year
When we could not physically meet with the youth in our hubs, hosting a webinar was a no brainer. That idea came with a few caveats: 1:The youth in our hubs typically rely on E-centers for internet access, 2: we could provide data bundles and vouchers but connectivity is not reliable as mobile networks do not prioritize rural areas when it comes to upgrading the infrastructure, and 3; Not everyone has a smart device on which to register and attend the webinar.
As soon as the nation’s Covid-19 regulations approved gatherings with strict adherence to safety protocols, we organised for the youth to go to E-centers where they could access the computers and wifi required to attend the webinar and only buy data for those with devices and good connectivity, who could not get to E-centers.
The Almighty Checklist
The first webinar the team hosted was a bit of a rollercoaster for the first half hour! At one point we even contemplated pulling the plug. Attendance was low when it began, and we decided to postpone starting by ten minutes to cater for late arrivals. It got awkward for those that were on time as they enjoyed the sounds of silence and only a blank screen to look at. When we eventually started the first speaker tried to present using a cellphone and started having issues, while his entire process of troubleshooting was broadcast to all attendees. After he disabled the share screen option, Zoom did not automatically put the person who was speaking on the main screen. It was a nightmare.
When we finally figured everything the rest of the webinar went pretty smoothly. The recording was later uploaded on YouTube. It had the fortune of being heavily edited before being published. Of course, it wasn’t the presenter’s fault, these are the things that we would have caught if we had conducted a proper dry run. We had a test run but we used it to test connectivity issues and sound quality instead of making it an exact replica of the actual webinar. We learnt a lot from that first failed webinar.
Our second webinar was a lot better. While new problems arose, we did not repeat the mistakes of the first one. Our internal process of reflection and learning based on SCRUM retrospectives meant that we learnt from our mistakes and took steps to make sure we didn’t make them again. It’s okay to make mistakes, but to repeat them isn’t.
All of the challenges that we have encountered have been logged in our ever growing webinar checklist, a tool to help us and others produce better online events.
Should we just wait for things to go back to normal?
Blueprints for organising physical events have existed in the organisation for many years and even those do not happen without glitches. The beauty of hosting online events is that there is an opportunity for that artefact to live forever on the internet and it also provides a far larger scale of reach. The material can also be reused even in future physical events. Not only are the benefits great but is the way the world is moving. As a civic tech organization, it is a natural extension of our work with the opportunity to share links to our platforms instead of asking people to take out their phones for live demos or for them to try when they get home.
Our vision has always been to improve systems that govern society so we just needed to do the same thing internally. The content was the thing that we put most of our attention towards. It became abundantly clear that everything else from technical operations to registration and logistics to panelist relations all deserve equal attention. The process should be so thorough that it is transferrable and if one team member cannot make it on the day, the event still goes ahead. Contingency plans should always be baked in!
This is the new normal, the sooner we start operating under this premise, the sooner we “perfect” the process. In the meantime, we will continue to champion the right to access for all.