CiviLive: Covid-19 – videos and lessons from the Oakland-to-Berlin-hosted event

2020-07-29 04:57
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“What I'm seeing in the Mutual Aid networks that are arising is none of them are going with Free Software. What we're doing with Flatbush is unfortunately unique right now. And I think that's unfortunate. Having been in the CiviCRM Community for 15 years, I think we need to rise to the challenge that Lobo laid down before us.”

Eric Goldhagen, OpenFlows Coop & Flatbush United Mutual Aid (video)

“The very nature and essence of Open Source is community… That’s how we build sustainable systems & that’s why systems like these are really important for COVID. If you look at the deployment of open source tech in the response from ODK and Commcare and all the contact tracing apps, I think Open Source is at the forefront, and has helped many countries around the world.”

Donald Lobo, CiviCRM co-founder, opening CiviLive (video)

Last month over 100 people and 13 presenters came together for the first CiviLive, focussing on responses to the Covid -19 crisis using CiviCRM. With presentations spanning volunteer management, crowdfunding to food provision, it was an attempt to shape a kind of virtual CiviCamp which could be built on (or branched) by others in the run-up to now-virtual global community summit this October.

How it all began

The motivation, early into lockdown, was to figure how best to work to the strengths of virtual events, while offsetting some of the shortcomings. The pluses:

  • we could have a much more diverse range of speakers from around the world;
  • more people could attend, without budget, carbon or accessibility constraints;
  • the operating costs would be much lower, so the event would be free / low cost;
  • everything could be easily recorded for later.

The negatives:

  • we get tired quicker sitting in front of a screen;
  • the event would therefore need to be shorter;
  • time-zone differences mean some would be watching in the evening, others in the morning, while others are excluded;
  • there’s no human chat, hanging out or networking

There seemed a further oportunity in that shorter events with wider geography could be themed in a way a CiviCamp can’t. You could have a virtual meet-up just around event management, or fundraising, or healthcare or campaigning. This could bring in new people to Civi who are only interested in the topic or the sector, and allow for knowledge-sharing between attendees that’s more focussed than simply 'how to use CiviCRM'. Floating the idea around with Josh it was clear there could also be virtual sprints, such as around documentation or interface or translations.

Around this time I’d been testing and making a few small PRs to Systopia’s Mutual Aid Extension which had been developed for Red Cross Hamburg, and seemed to answer a problem many mutual aid and support groups in the UK were struggling with – how to match a flood of people volunteering their time, against the many urgent needs people have (from shopping to food provision to loneliness) without building quite complex tech from scratch. Through networks like Code4Covid and the Coronavirus Tech Handbook – there was a lot of different emerging open tech projects, from ventillators and mask design to contact tracing and mutual aid maps. CiviCRM, integrating with each of the big three CMSs, while letting non-coders build pretty sophisticated human management and support apps – without license fees – seemed potentially really helpful – so long as people knew about it.

I proposed to Systopia’s Björn that we could do an event around their extension and other similar solutions. That got things moving, then I posted on Civi's Gitlab and Mattermost. Gradually a few more sessions appeared, then Neil Planchon, who had co-hosted the Oakland CiviCamps a number of times, kindly volunteered to help and we began weekly planing calls, where his experience in running large virtual meet-ups for the Cohousing Association and Foundation for Intentional Community was invaluable.

Speakers and a name…

In terms of speakers we wanted to make sure there was a breadth of topics and countries covered, and in the end had hosts/speakers in San Francisco, Calgary, New York, Bradford, Leeds, Barcelona, Cologne and Berlin.

It came to the question of the name – and a few were thrown around on Chat (Civi UnCamp and CiviConnect), before two people said CiviLive was their favourite and no-one raised an objection. I built the page - and we invited Donald Lobo, CiviCRM’s co-founder, who stepped back from the community a few years ago, to say some opening words.

While there were many possible approaches, and we could have debated these forever, by framing this to ourselves as an experiment in virtual Civi events, we felt what mattered most was to do something. Whoever did the next CiviLive could re-use the things that worked, change things that didn’t, and the approach and technology could keep getting better with each event.

The format

After attending a number of virtual meetups, we recognised two sorts of online video events we were regularly referencing: the ‘sit-back’ lecture hall, and the ‘lean-forward’ interactive seminar or workshop. Would it be possible to balance the best of each and do both? Once the speakers were on board it was clear that parallel longer sessions would mean people get segmented into one space. Karin Gjertsen was also keen to ensure it didn’t become a WordPress vs Drupal event with competing tracks at the same time.

Finally we decided to have a main hall opening with a series of short (10 min) case study presentations about how CiviCRM is helping organisations in their Covid-19 response. After a short break we’d move to breakout rooms for more dedicated discussion on each of these topics along with a Beginners' guide to CiviCRM and an introduction to WordPress CiviCRM (Wordpress hadn’t appeared in any of the keynotes).

For the end, we wanted people to reconvene for a final session, and to encourage more friendly chat afterwards we kept the breakout rooms open so speakers could return there, and attendees could drop in and have a more informal discussion or learn more.

Our tech requirements therefore was a ‘main hall’ that could accommodate 100+ attendees watching & chatting (but not necessarily needing video); and rooms where everyone had video for up to 20 or so people. Ideally there would be a way to move easily between these spaces, and all the sessions would be recorded.

The technology

This decision took up by far the biggest part of the discussion (and continues on Lab). We obviously began with wanting to go open source: the three main contenders being Jitsi, Big Blue Button and a new service which offered almost exactly the structure of the format described above, using Jitsi as a backend: Unhangout. Each had their advantages, but all hit a wall once you got to more than 15 attendees; at that point we’d need to switch to streaming or have a well-resourced server that we could test to capacity in advance.

YouTube streaming is how both the 24h Joomla and Beyond and WordCamp Europe shared their events this year, and how Veda's is running – and it is possible to livestream from Jitsi, Zoom or Crowdcast. Big Blue Button was being used by two of the presenters : Systopia and ixiam – both offered their systems, but by streaming the larger main hall events we wouldn't be able to have attendees interact in video.

It turned out that – the coop tech event – had used Big Blue Button with 50+ simultaneous attendees, using, and it had worked. However, we learnt of this late into planning and were put off by the annual cost when we don’t know when the next CiviCRM event would be. Chatting with them it was clear our requirements (8 rooms) was also a challenge at short notice.

Eventually we decided to take up Alejandros at iXiam’s offer of using their Zoom Pro account as this would let us have 8 rooms with potentially 100 or more people in each room. We were aware of the many controversies around Zoom for security, privacy, and bad practices – but there was no budget available and very little time before the event to test something self-hosted – and it was stable at the scale we needed.

We soon realised Zoom’s breakout rooms wouldn’t work as they couldn’t be filmed and were either randomly assigned or had to be asigned to attendees in advance – we wanted people to decide spontaneously after watching the case studies. So setting it all up was more of a headache than anticipated – we needed an account for each room, and created 8 zoom accounts, with passwords, and gave these to speakers who’d be the host. Moving between rooms would require people to click on links – but Zoom doesn’t have a customisable landing page for events, so that would need to be in the welcome email and shared in the chat (however if you leave a room and return the chat vanishes). Thankfully Neil was brilliant on the day jumping between rooms adding the links for the main hall to the chat. And the auto-record video feature was welcome in that it ensured every presentation was recorded without having to manage that as the event unfolded.

The event

I was more nervous than I’ve been for a long time: so many things that could go wrong and they'd be live-streamed, and recorded! But it went fine, thanks to the efforts of many people on the day. The biggest lesson was not to try and host and manage the tech at the same time – speaking while finding the name of the next speaker amongst a sidebar of 80 atendees to make them host isn't recommend! Second was remembering to keep turning the microphones on and off – there's several moments where I appear on screen in the recordings because I'm midway thru typing a message during a session! Also when using dummy accounts for rooms, the names of the speaker isn't always clear - they need to override the display name.

One of the most difficult things was there were some great speakers in quite small, quiet rooms – but the upside is those sessions were recorded, so nothing was wasted. It was a sign perhaps that seven simultaneous sessions was two much - two sets of three or four sessions would have been better – but we’d wanted to keep the overall running time at under 3 hours. An event spanning a day however could do that. You can see them all in the videos below:

When Joe McLoughin at the end commented “it’s great to see a lot of you folks live at one place, and not have to travel across the world to do that” - he captured what we too felt was the benefit of virtual CiviCRM events during this crisis.

Erik’s closing comment also captured why it’s so important to keep these meet-ups going, in whatever format the next ones take:

“one thing that always strikes me when I’m at a CiviCRM event – and this being my first virtual one – this community is special and it’s one of the only software communities where you can be pretty certain that everyone in the room is interested in creating a better world, and not just making fancy things. And I really appreciate you all for that.”

Eric Goldhagen, OpenFlows Coop

Neil and I really acknowledge and appreciate the presenters' contributions and our committed CiviCRM community. Our hope is that we have inspired others to create, during our new C19 normal, similar gatherings. Onwards… Neil and Nicol


Thanks Nicol and Neil for putting in all this work. It was a great experience, and it's wonderful to see that the CiviCRM community is still going strong in C19 times!

Massive effort by Nicol and Neil to organize this - big THANK you!

I thought it was very successful and a positive to come out of Covid-19. I appreciate it's a lot of effort but I'd love to see CiviLive (great name!) as a regular feature.

Thanks Nic. Great event! Appreciate all the work that went into this.