Declines in budgets across the public health community were just one reason the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began looking at innovative approaches for employees and partners to collaborate online.
With the agency's health informatics partners stretching to state and local public health departments, academics, educational institutions, standards organizations, as well as other countries, CDC in 2009 began examining how it could develop a more cost-effective and efficient way for these key stakeholders to meet, collaborate and advance new ideas.
The result was the Virtual Platform Initiative - the first-ever public sector-developed virtual events program. Under project lead and creator Adam Arthur, the agency in 2011 launched the Public Health Informatics Conference, which opened up an on-site conference in Atlanta to nearly 2,000 virtual registrants.
"Through these platforms, virtual events expand opportunities for participation in both space and time - enabling choices of when and how to attend," Arthur said. "This flexibility helps CDC entice a broader audience, lower overall costs and improve the monitoring of metrics, measures and ROI outcomes."
CDC has since closed its in-person format for the conference, instead creating the Public Health Informatics Virtual Event, or PHIVE - an immersive, completely virtual conference that streams keynotes, presentations and other sessions from multiple locations. Its most recent conference in January brought together more than 1,300 attendees from across seven different countries, resulting in thousands of dollars in taxpayer savings and eliminating roughly 900,000 pounds of carbon emissions. The archive of the conference is now available for free online.
Tasked with making the virtual event as realistic as possible, Arthur tried to make the virtual environment resemble an in-person event, even green-screening real people on their laptops and smart phones to insert into the virtual environment. The meeting rooms, lobby and exhibit halls also were designed to resemble the hotel where the conference was typically held.
The idea was for CDC to create a virtual platform that could be used for the informatics conference but also could be scaled to turn any in-person meeting, training or event into a virtual experience. The agency has since taken six other events online, and has used the platform for some use cases such as telework, Arthur said.
Still, while Arthur touts the virtual conference platform as a leap forward for agencies in enterprise cost savings and innovation, he does not discount the value of in-person events when it comes to collaboration.
"People crave face-to-face contact, and it's actually healthy to have that from time to time," he said. "In our current climate, with budget cuts and sequestration, we have to make due with what we're given, and this is the best alternative."Photo courtesy of David Goldman/AP