My IGF 2017 lesson learned: remote participation wasn’t a viable alternative way to participate

Ongoing problems with remote participation at IGF 2017 have made me realize that the only way to properly participate (or even observe) in IGF is to be there in person. This was only my second meeting to follow remotely. The first was back in 2011, and I don’t remember having any problems. Remote participation wasn’t as advanced back then, and I think remote participation consisted entirely of watching a webcast. No Cisco WebEx or Adobe Connect-type functionality available.

Fast forward to 2017, and the IGF community wants it all:

  • Chat online with others (Via WebEx)
  • Speak directly to the people in the physical room (Via WebEx)
  • Listen and watch what’s happening in the rooms (Via WebEx and via separate streaming webcast)
  • Listen to discussions in any of the 6 UN languages (via streaming webcast, but not for all sessions)
  • Read transcripts in real time (via streaming text in a web browser, or below streaming webcast)

An impressive set of remote participation options!

ICANN actually does remote participation very well (and goes above and beyond in the language department, adding Portuguese to their interpretation sessions).

But IGF? In 2017? Not so well. (I’ve left the description of the actual problems I experienced to an annex the end of this blog post, since the description is detailed, and unless you’re a remote participation nerd, it would probably send you to sleep.)

So why did remote participation at IGF 2017 not quite make the grade?

The IGF community wants pimped up Porsches, but are only funding a fleet of second-hand Edsels

The IGF Secretariat is stuck in a difficult place. The community is highly aspirational in its goals (a good thing) but collectively is unwilling to pay for it (not so good).

In attempting to deliver what the community wants, the Secretariat is over-reaching itself. Instead of doing one or two things really well, it’s doing a not-so-great job on lots of things.

Let me make it very clear here: I don’t blame the Secretariat for this. They are doing their best. They are hesitant to say “no” to the community they serve. The MAG is also reluctant to say “no”. Saying “no”, I suspect, is seen as antithetical to the bottom-up multistakeholder model of Internet governance. If the multistakeholder community wants something, then the feeling is it should be provided.

Quality of provision, though, suffers. Instead of being able to deliver all those pimped up Porsches, all IGF can do is deliver the requested number of vehicles, but of a far inferior make and quality.

Right now, remote participation is not a viable solution to those who can’t attend IGF in person

Based on my experiences at this IGF, I would not recommend anyone consider participating remotely in future IGFs. Not unless things are significantly overhauled.

I would, instead, tell people that they have to be there in person to have any chance of being able to follow any of the sessions.

Such a recommendation, of course, rules out the participation of vast swathes of potential participants who come from developing countries or represent entities that don’t have the resources to send their representative to a far-flung location for a week’s meeting.

The only real solution is to fix the remote participation. One way forward is to direct more funds to support more robust remote participation mechanisms. But given the IGF’s ongoing financial woes, I can’t see this happening in time for next year.

But there is another option: rationalize the confusing array of remote participation options available.

The IGF community needs to ask itself if it really needs 4 different ways of accessing the meeting remotely:

  1. Cisco WebEx
  2. Streaming Webcast via IGF YouTube account
  3. Streaming Webcast via IGF website, which pulls in the YouTube videos, and adds the appropriate live caption underneath it.
  4. Stand alone live caption pages.

At various points in the meeting, there have been 11 publicly recorded/streamed sessions running in parallel. This means that at any one point in the day there were up to 4 x 11 remote participation facilities that were supposed to be active. More, if you take into account the plenary room had audio in 6 UN languages, plus the floor audio. So in total, that’s up to 50 (fifty!) remote participation streams available in parallel. It’s no wonder there were glitches. In fact, it’s a miracle it worked at all.

It’s vital for IGF to have its remote participation mechanisms working well, as for many potential stakeholders, it’s a low cost entry into IGF – a way to evaluate if it’s something they want to participate in more substantially in future years, either by participating actively in the annual forum (remotely or onsite) or via IGF’s intersessional work programmes. It’s also a useful tool for onsite participants, who can use the WebEx tool in particular, to interact with other participants online.

Remote participation can work really well, as ICANN’s remote participation mechanisms demonstrate. Please, let’s fix this for IGF. If it means temporarily having to reduce the number of remote participation options, so remaining ones work well, and encourage people to use it as a viable alternative to traveling to IGF in person, then surely it’s worth it. IGF can always add more mechanisms back into the mix when it has the resources to fully support them.

Annex: Documenting my frustrations with IGF 2017 remote participation

I plan to submit a version of this list below to the 2018 MAG’s call for submissions to review and evaluate IGF 2017 since my aim isn’t just to have a whinge on my blog, but to actually help fix IGF’s remote participation for future users.

Please note that the issues below are my personal experiences, so this is not a canonical list:

WebEx (the only true two-way participation)

  • WebEx audio was often not turned on at the start of the day, meaning that the stenographers, who appear to take their audio feed from the WebEx, rather than webcast stream, aren’t able to transcript significant chunks of those sessions. I doubt that IGF has the funds to pay the stenographers to do additional work to go back over the webcast archives and fill in the blanks. So a lot of the archived transcripts will be missing chunks.
  • The audio in the WebEx audio seems to be connected via a phone line, and the quality isn’t great. Because many participants at an IGF meeting aren’t used to regularly speaking into microphones, their voices are already quiet when listening through the direct audio feed from the microphones that accompanies the streaming webcast. This is made worse when the audio feed from rooms is then channeled into a phone line (or maybe even just a room microphone attached to the computer hosting the WebEx room?). The lower quality audio in the WebEx rooms makes it very difficult to what many speakers are saying. Since the stenographers are listening to the same muffled WebEx feed, you can’t rely on their transcripts to make sense of what is happening, either.
  • The video in WebEx rooms comes from small, slightly moveable webcams. In some rooms, this webcam has been pointed at the audience the whole time. Given the setup of the desks in many of the Palais des Nations rooms, this means I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the backs of chairs and the backs of people’s heads. When I asked if I could see the speakers and presentations, I was told I would need to go look at the separate streaming webcast. Even when the webcam has been pointed at speakers, it’s generally been at desk level, and provided odd up-nose shots of speakers (and their water bottles). Why not just import the streaming webcast instead of having the inferior webcam video? Or is it technically not possible?
  • With stenographers struggling with the muffled WebEx audio and the range of unfamiliar accents, being able to see any presentation slides from the session would be a great help in being able to understand exactly what is happening in a session. This could be achieved by uploading presentations to the computer hosting the onsite WebEx for that room, and loading it into the WebEx app, but this doesn’t seem to have been done – at least not in any of the sessions I tried watching.

Streaming webcasts

  • High quality audio and video. Great! But… it seems the timing for each webcast session link was programmed in advance and many errors were made, making it impossible to watch the session I wanted because the room link would tell me it wasn’t going to start for another [x] hours.
  • Other times, choosing the streaming webcast link (not the direct YouTube version) would embed the end of the last programmed session in that room, which would show the beginning of the session I wanted, then 10 or so minutes into that session, the end of that programme for the previous session webcast would end, and the webcast would stop entirely, resulting in needing to refresh the page to get the next programmed webcast link…. And in the process, losing the entire set of transcript material under that. Given the transcript and WebEx links didn’t change for each session, but stayed constant for each room, it would be easy to solve all these programmed start/end time glitches by just having a single daily live feed for each room in use, then chop up the video into session length pieces later. Yes, that would be annoying for someone to have to sit through and find the start and end times of sessions that never start or end on time, but better to annoy one staff member than to alienate a bunch of remote participants that IGF insists it wants to be inclusive of.

Live captions

  • At various points in the meeting, there have been 11 sets of transcripts running in parallel. Not all 11 stenographers are equally proficient, and if you were in a session with one of the less proficient stenographers, the transcript could be… not particularly helpful.
  • Some of the stenographers didn’t seem to even attempt any words that seem technical or specific, leaving bland transcripts that a) don’t convey the substantive discussion, and b) lack so many words – including verbs – they fail to make sense. This could be addressed to a large extent by providing the stenographers with a list of terminology and names likely to be used at the meeting and in particular sessions. But that would require work by the Secretariat (who don’t have the time) and by session organizers (the vast majority of whom have probably never worked with stenographers before, and don’t understand what their needs are). It could also be helped by having session moderators who insist that a) each speaker give their name and organization before speaking, b) tell speakers to speak closer into their microphones and c) tell fast speakers to slow down, especially when referring to technical or other specific terms that may not only be new terms for stenographers, but also other IGF participants in the session.
  • I assume that the stenographers from the USA and have limited exposure to the huge range of accents available in the world. This makes it a challenge for the stenographers to easily understand speakers from pretty much anywhere outside North America, the UK, and Australia and New Zealand, resulting in lots of “(?”) and “(inaudible)” comments being injected into the transcripts. I recognize this isn’t an easy problem to fix, but it might be worth adding “has experience of transcribing speech in accents other than North American, British and Australia/NZ.” ICANN and ITU also have this issue with their stenographers, so it’s not a problem limited to IGF. But if IGF is to truly support and encourage diversity of input, it’s really not acceptable to have speakers from Asia, Africa and swathes of Europe constantly having their interventions at IGF (and ICANN and ITU) almost made invisible by huge holes in the transcription of their speech.
  • This isn’t a particular fault of this particular meeting, but a general bugbear of mine. The live caption module allows for a “transcript” button that, if clicked on, pops up a new window containing the entire transcript for the current session (not just from when you entered the transcript page). I assume that IGF doesn’t have this enabled because it’s an extra cost to allow this facility. But given how long it takes to navigate to the next session you’re after (remember physical room number, then go find the transcript URL, which is numbered differently), having the ability to see what you missed would be useful.

Navigating to remote participation options

  • Remote participants shouldn’t have to navigate multiple pages to find the remote participation links for the session they are after. There must be a simpler way to link remote participation options from the session pages in the IGF schedule (which currently uses Sched). ICANN has managed it with Sched, so maybe they can help IGF with this.