Global Conversations :: Global Connections seems an unlikely theme for a conference held after a year of pandemic lockdown, when people stayed home and travel became a rarity—yet the second annual NISO Plus conference, held Feb. 22–25, delivered exactly what its tagline promised. Along the way, it demonstrated that, travel restrictions notwithstanding, the information world remains as closely connected as ever.
Topping last year’s successful inaugural conference—one of the last in-person information industry conferences held—was a tall order, but NISO pulled it off. More than 800 total registrants—almost four times last year’s registration—joined in from 26 countries on six continents. Geographic diversity raised the challenge of accommodating time zones around the globe, so sessions were scheduled across a 12- to 13-hour period each day. For a U.S. East Coast attendee, this meant an opening session in late morning, a late afternoon break, and evening sessions lasting past 10 p.m. But regardless of time zone, attendees were treated to a stimulating experience that included four breakout tracks punctuated by engaging keynotes, the annual Miles Conrad lecture, and lots of conversation.
Technology was used to good effect. Most presentations were prerecorded, although some were live Zoom sessions. Every one, live or prerecorded, was followed by a live Zoom Q&A session. Live presentations were recorded so that they (as well as the prerecorded sessions) were available for asynchronous viewing. Asynchronous conversation was provided by the Discourse open-source threaded discussion app, and the most difficult challenge of all—replicating social events and serendipitous hallway conversations—was addressed with Gather, which is reminiscent of the virtual game Second Life. The user starts out with an avatar, but is able to switch out of avatar mode to establish live audio and video links for conversation with others in the virtual space. Gather also supports interactions with multimedia objects. These apps were tied together with the scheduling app Sched, although integration could have been more seamless. This is an area that’s likely to be improved as the virtual conferencing tools evolve.
Noted author Cory Doctorow delivered the opening keynote. Doctorow, whose oeuvre includes both fiction and nonfiction on IT themes, focused on the power of Big Tech. He highlighted the enormous concentrated power of Big Tech companies and argued that such concentration is inherently bad for democratic society, regardless of who is in charge. He closed with an impassioned plea for antitrust action to break up monopolistic corporations, not just in IT, but across multiple industries, even mattresses and eyeglasses.
The second day’s keynote set a striking contrast in context and subject matter, yet continued the advocacy of shifting power away from existing centers and toward distributed voices. The presenter was Margaret Sraku-Lartey (principal librarian at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Forestry Research Institute of Ghana). Using examples from pharmacology and food science, she argued for the importance of Indigenous knowledge and the need for information professionals to become proactive in managing its preservation, sharing, and use in all fields. She discussed current efforts such as “sacred groves,” in which native plant and animal species are preserved, and the community-led OA research portal AfricArXiv.
Day Three was headlined by both a keynote and the annual Miles Conrad lecture. The keynoter was Norihiro Hagita (program director for the Japan Science & Technology Agency’s Moonshot Goal 1 program). Moonshot Goal 1’s mission is the “realization of a society in which individuals can be free of limitations of body, brain, space, and time by 2050.” Current research projects covered in Hagita’s talk concentrate on cybernetic avatars—synergy between avatars and robotics—to overcome physical and geographic barriers.
The Miles Conrad lecture was delivered by Heather Joseph, a longtime leader in the OA movement and executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) since 2005. Joseph reviewed the history of the OA movement, linking it to the drive for social justice and equity around the world. She appealed for the audience to understand the right to information as a fundamental human right and closed with a call to move beyond today’s commoditization of knowledge.
Closing out the conference was the fourth and final keynoter, Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the University of North Carolina, contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Tufekci focused on the infodemic of mis- and disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. Noting that even authoritative scientific sources have not always given correct information and advice, she characterized the pandemic as a stress test for information in our society—if we can learn its lessons. Those lessons include that everyone is susceptible to misinformation, facile fact-checking isn’t a panacea, and determining truth is a hard process for which there’s no shortcut. She concluded with a call for a networked platform for structured, constructive debate.
Interspersed with the keynotes were program sessions—some dealing with specific NISO projects, and others more broadly conceptual. Examples of the former were the Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT), FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) data principles, and Knowledge Bases and Related Tools (KBART). The conceptual sessions included presentations on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the information ecosystem, global approaches to privacy (with a focus on European Union and Chinese legislation), and consideration of the pandemic’s possible lasting effects on information professions and markets.
In addition, lightning talks by information entrepreneurs returned to the program this year, after an absence in 2020. This year’s version included presentations by both startups (Our Research, whose Unsub is a digital subscription analysis tool for libraries, and the OA Switchboard, which facilitates OA publication communications through messaging among authors, funders, and publishers) and established organizations (the OA books program of Springer Nature and arXiv, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2021).
Throughout the conference, NISO leaders kept a sharp focus on connecting talk with action. True to NISO’s identity as a developer of standards, organizers regularly asked speakers, including keynoters, “What kinds of standards or recommended practices might be helpful in this area? What can NISO do to help?” Attendees—whether NISO members or not—were invited to participate in ongoing discussions and to propose projects for NISO consideration. The reality, of course, is that NISO can only take on a few new projects at any one time, but by casting its net wide, it increases the opportunities for undertaking the most transformative initiatives. NISO also achieves its promise that its conference must be a conversation, with the leaders listening as well as speaking (globally).
In concluding the conference, NISO’s executive director Todd Carpenter promised that NISO Plus would be back again next February, although the exact dates and format haven’t been finalized. Given this year’s success in attracting such a large and diverse group of participants, though, it’s unlikely that the digital component will go away.