Organization of COMBINE meetings

The coordination of COMBINE owes much to the people organizing the meetings, and in particular to the hosts of the events. Thanks to their hard work, COMBINE events have become such successes that hosting them boosts recognition in the field, and facilitates building and strengthening collaborations.

Procedure to organize a COMBINE meeting

People interested in organizing a COMBINE meeting should begin by filling out the hosting interest survey as early as possible. This will enable potential hosts to highlight the advantages and possible issues associated with each bid, and start the discussion with the COMBINE coordinators. The currently-planned events are listed on the COMBINE events page; dates not listed there are usually still up for bidding.

Well in advance of a given future event, the COMBINE coordinators will discuss the bids made. Based on the qualities of the proposals, as well as more strategic considerations such as alternating timezones and proximity with other conferences, the coordinators prioritize the bids and also engage in discussions with potential hosts. When a project is mature, it is announced on the event page, as well as on the combine-announce mailing list, on Twitter, and on other social media.

Depending on the country where the meeting is located, some people may need visas to enter the country. This can be easier or harder for people, depending on their country of origin and the hosting country. For example, Russian and Chinese nationals have a harder time getting into the USA. To make this even possible for them, they need to know the planned meeting location very far in advance, because the visa application process takes many months.

Responsibilities of each stakeholder

COMBINE coordinators

  • The COMBINE coordinators evaluate the bids and select potential locations for the various meetings.
  • They write letters of support for grant applications written by the bidding groups to support the event.
  • They create the master web pages and documents for the meeting on the COMBINE web site.

Local organizers

  • The local organizers seek funding for the event.
  • They choose the venue for the event.
  • They organize the catering for lunch and coffee break plus a conference dinner.
  • They run the logistic of the meeting.
  • They set up the registration system. (Often they can make use of a free service such as Eventbrite.)
  • They decide how much to charge in registration fees (if any are needed).
  • They collect the registration fees and issue the receipts to attendees.
  • They act as the single point of contact with the attendees.

COMBINE coordinators + Local organizers

  • Together, the COMBINE coordinators and local organizers decide about the dates of the event.
  • Together, the COMBINE coordinators and local organizers develop the program of the event.
  • For COMBINE forums, they collaborate to select session chairs.

Finances

The organization of COMBINE meetings can be costly, and the earlier that budgets are established, the better for everyone.

Expenses

We require the local organization to provide:

  • the venue, including meeting rooms, networking, etc.
  • catering for lunch and coffee break. While food and beverage are important, staffing is not. If money can be saved by having self-service rather than waiters, this option should be chosen.
  • if the venue is far from any convenient accommodation, shuttles should be provided to and from the venue.

In addition, we gently request the organizers to support a conference dinner. In exceptional cases, the cost of the conference dinner can be covered by attendees. However, this can cause problems for people who are not refunded or have per-diem refunding systems (because in the latter case, the dinner can be more expensive than what is refunded). This results in some attendees skipping the conference dinner, which is unfortunate because the dinner is always a high point of COMBINE meetings. Everyone benefits if the organizers do their best to facilite the participation.

For HARMONY hackathons, it is advised to seek free accommodation, or financial support to help with accommodation costs. The rationale is that developers are giving their time to the support of the standards, and we should ease the development of support as much as possible.

There is no COMBINE policy on travel costs. It is not mandatory for the organizers to refund any travel costs. It may be that travel support for attendees is requested as part of a grant application. This is fine if that helps securing funding; however, refunding travel costs should be considered after other expenses above are met.

Similarly, we do not impose a policy on speaker invitations. Having invited speakers at COMBINE forum may help securing funding. Note, however, that external speakers are discouraged at HARMONY hackathons, because those events should remains technical and productive events. If speakers are invited, funding for them should come after other expenses above are met. Local organizers are assumed to take responsibility for all arrangements for invited speakers (e.g., accomodations, transportation, etc.).

Income

Funding for COMBINE events comes from different sources (e.g., funding agencies, universities, local companies). If possible, cheap or even free venues should be used. An example is rooms made available by university housing.

For COMBINE forums, registration fees bring a significant income. We advise a fee of roughly 25 Euros per day (30 Dollars, 20 GBP). Part of the reason for the fees is to encourage people to attend the entire conference rather than skip out early (or worse, not show at all) because it did not cost them anything to sign up. In past events, a single fee was charged for all attendees regardless of status, but some people have also requested that students pay less than non-students; this matter is still up for debate and discussion.

Fees for HARMONY hackathons are discouraged. The reason is that we want to encourage as many developers as possible to attend the hackathons, and fees discourage attendance.

Scientific organization

The scientific organization of COMBINE meetings should start as early as possible. Some people need to have an idea of the program before they will register. However, drawing a detailed program early is counterproductive in that (i) some people may not see their topic of interest and decide not to register; (ii) the program will almost certainly evolve as people register and start self-organizing. It is best to open registration as early as possible, and close it a couple of weeks before the event. Late registrations can always be accommodated on a case-per-case basis, but should remain rare.

There are roughly four stages in preparing the program. (Note that programs for COMBINE forums need to be more detailed than those for HARMONY hackathons.) The stages are as follows:

1) As early as possible, and at least before registration begins, the local organizers and COMBINE coordinators discuss a rough program, with thematic blocks. For example, some blocks may be "model description (SBML, CellML and related standards)", "cross-COMBINE standards", etc. At this stage, an initial allocation of rooms to sessions should also be made.

2) As registrations accumulate, the editorial boards of the different COMBINE standards are brought into the discussion to help defining "their" sessions. Blocks are adapted following the registration trends (e.g., more "SBML people" in attendance means more time dedicated to SBML issues, etc.) and the final rooms are attributed. The blocks of topics are refined further; e.g., "SBML package X", "SBGN language Y", etc. In the case of COMBINE forums, chairs are nominated and approached. (In the case of HARMONY hackathons, pure hacking sessions do not need chairs.)

3) For sessions involving presentations or tutorials, the session chairs, together with the relevant editorial boards if needed, select the speakers and their order.

4) The last step is event-time reorganization; that is, changes during the event. COMBINE meetings are living meetings; new discussion topics frequently emerge during the course of the meetings and need to be accommodated in the program.

Poster sessions need to have some dedicated time to them, perhaps combined with extended breaks in the afternoon. Without dedicated time in the schedule, many people simply never go to look at the posters because they are busy. In the past, people did not like combining the poster session with lunch, especially if lunch required going off-site. The location of the posters also makes a difference to the success of the poster session. If they are segregated in a separate room not visible to the main meeting room, fewer people visit. The ideal situation is if the posters are right outside of the main meeting room, or even inside (if the room is big enough).

The registration process should also include the possibility for participants to submit abstracts for talks and posters.

Practical considerations

Venue

Rooms

One main room is required for plenary presentations and discussions. The main room for COMBINE forums (a meeting which features many talks) should have audio/microphone equipment, so that people in the back can hear, and we can record the sessions.

In addition to the main room, breakout rooms nearby are needed for ad hoc separate discussions and meetings. There needs to be an overhead projector and projection screen or surface in each room. If possible, the breakout rooms also should have whiteboards. Paper pads and pens/pencils come handy too, although it is not necessary to place one per desk/person; the materials could be left at the front of the room for those people who desire them.

In the past, people have expressed a dislike for having presentations in the same room as where people are attempting to hack and work. They have found that fewer than the majority were interested in the presentation of a given topic, so the result was that a greater number of people were distracted and inconvenienced. The implication is that for HARMONY, it must be possible to have presentations for (let us say) half the attendees in a separate room from the main working room.

The venue should not have an early closing or clear-out time. People sometimes want to work or have discussions right up to dinner time, and if the facilities forces them out by (e.g.) 6 PM, it is inconvenient. This is particularly important for COMBINE forums. If a cut-off time is unavoidable, then it must be reasonable. We absolutely cannot have a 5 PM cut-off time; that is too early.

Networking

It is critical to have a fast and reliable network that can handle 60 people using it at the same time. The capacity issue is serious. Many facilities claim to be able to support this capacity, but when tested, turn out to be unable to handle that many simultaneous users. What then happens during meetings is that the network saturates and frustrates everyone in the room. This has happened repeatedly, so we cannot overstate the importance of verifying that the network truly can handle the load. Do not simply trust what your networking/facilities/IT people claim. You need to verify the capacity or have direct experience from past meetings in the same room.

For HARMONY, network access must be free to the attendees. For COMBINE forums, it is highly preferrable that access be free too, although a pay-for-access scheme would also work.

Wireless networking is preferrable. If only wired connections are available, we need to know ahead of time so that someone can bring wireless base stations for people who don't have wired networking as an option on their computing system. Also enough access points and ethernet cables should be provided. If the facility or room already provides wireless networking, then having one or a few fast wired connections is still highly desirable, for example to be able to stream video of the sessions.

Complex security precautions are a strong negative. Particularly annoying are systems that require you to log in via a web page every time you reconnect to the network.

Ports should be open so that people can log to remote systems, download/upload files, etc. (For instance, ssh and sftp ports should not be blocked by the network.)

At some venues, a technician has to be present during meetings; the costs for this have to be taken into consideration in the meeting budget.

Electricity

Remember that virtually all COMBINE attendees are bringing laptops. They expect to run them during the meetings. (During hackathons, 100% of the people need to run their computers 100% of the time.) For this reason, it is critical to have power outlets for everyone in the room, distributed rationally throughout the room. Most attendees will not bring extension cords, so it is really not workable to have a room where power is available but distributed in only a few locations in the room. It is simply not viable to have a few power outlets distributed around the periphery of the room (which is, sadly, all too common).

Flexible table/chair arrangements

HARMONY requires desks, preferably movable desks and chairs. COMBINE forums are also best served with movable desks and chairs, but lecture halls have also worked in the past. (However, if it is a lecture hall arrangement, then there must be power outlets near every seat so that people can still set up their laptops.)

Others

Prepare name badges and relevant information (network access, local map, printed program) for participants. Give a welcome address and let participants know where they can find help (e.g., local oranizers).

What to avoid

  • Lecture-hall seating arrangement with very tight spacing. If one can only get in and out of the rows from the sides, people cannot get in or out of the middle seats without requiring all people in the intervening seats to get up and let them through.
  • Desktops attached to the rows in front of each seat with a fold-away arrangement with a gap that can cause contents such as laptops to be easily spilled on the floor.

Accommodation

Hotels

Sometimes hotels agree on special rates for events which can be helpful to reduce the costs for participants. A list of appropriate hotels should be put on the web by the local organizers.

A range of hotels should ideally be within walking distance of the venue. Note that because of physical disabilities, some people will require taxis or other mode of transportation for anything over 1 city block, even if the hotels are in walking distance for most other people. For this reason, the option of taxi transportation must also exist. (In other words, it is a deal-breaker to be in a location where venue and hotels are separate and the only available mode of travel between the two is walking. It is impossible for some attendees to do this.)

Chartered bus transportation should be avoided if possible. In general, any mode of transportation that requires people to come and go at only a couple of specific times during the day is suboptimal. Public transportation is acceptable but people want to be able to come and go on their schedule, not someone else's. So, walking, subways, regular trains, regular buses (as in a city), etc., are all okay from that respect.

Just like at the meeting venue, it is critical that the hotel(s) haves fast and reliable networking. People work in their rooms before and after the meetings!

Athletic facilities available is a plus, either at the hotels or nearby. For a one-week stay, it becomes a consideration for people. This is more than simply the option of running outside. Some people may not be able to run due to physical reasons, but can use cardio equipment in a gym; moreover, weight training equipment is important to some people.

Airport transportation issues

It is vastly preferable if people can arrange their own reasonably-priced transportation from the airport to the hotels. The alternative of having to arrange transportation (either individual cars or vans) not only tends to be expensive for the organizers or hosts, but also is incredibly complicated to arrange. (It requires knowing everyone's flight schedules, AND it requires the organizers to be responsible for dealing with the situation where someone's flight is delayed or cancelled, to avoid stranding that person at the airport.)

Catering

Coffee/tea/soft drinks/water needs to be available nearby. Coffee and tea is not enough; some people don't drink either and really want soft drinks or water.

The location is best right outside the room. It is especially best to avoid having to go to another building altogether, for reasons of time, inconvenience, and possibly weather complications.

Food/snacks are desirable to go along with the beverages.

If there are many restaurants and stores within walking distance of the hotels, not all meals have to be arranged by the organizers. Conversely, if the attendees are essentially trapped, then the organizers must arrange all meals. Note that the latter represents significantly more work and a higher cost to the organizers.

At least one group dinner should be arranged by the organizers or hosts. This will require having a restaurant or catering option that can handle groups of 50–90 people.

Experience showed that fixed menus are preferable to prearranged dinners in which people have to choose from fixed menus earlier in the day, with the expectation that the restaurant will have the meals ready when they get there. People not only forget what they had ordered; they also tend to change their minds. If the aim is to feed a lot of people with choice, it is preferable to find a buffet.