Virtual Conferences Just Got a Lot More Real

Increasing Connections in the Federal Government Despite Social Distancing

Pete Newell, Mary Hayes, and Jen Roy

February 5, 2021

Being forced to cancel their conference didn’t keep a key Air Force contingent from fostering innovative engagement around some of the national security challenges Airmen face. Instead, AFWERX last week did in a matter of days what many companies, government agencies, and other large organizations are struggling to do now: They leveraged technology to create the kinds of connections that are critical to successful problem-solving, even in this time of social distancing.

Conferences exist to connect people with ideas and until recently, doing that virtually was unwieldy. After all, identifying the right people to connect with at an event is difficult – even in face-to-face engagements. But in the face of a global pandemic, AFWERX delivered an unprecedented proof-of-concept for a completely remote large-scale conference.

Pivoting Plans

The AFWERX Spark Collider & Pitch Bowl scheduled for 10-12 March 2020 was intended to connect people experiencing problems, like how to automate and visualize multi-source data, with potential solution providers. The event followed the announcement of the first 2020 awardees of Department of Defense’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which provides funding for small businesses to meet Federal research and development needs. 

Taking the conference in a virtual direction wasn’t a natural act. That’s because though the pandemic has caused a ground-breaking shift in business as usual across all industries, it proves especially challenging for the federal government workforce. Many government workers are unable to work from home in the traditional sense; critical systems that support connection and knowledge management are often classified or otherwise inaccessible from outside their offices. The federal government understandably responded to this global health crisis by canceling in-person engagements, changing work schedules, and focusing the home-bound workforce on “professional development” or thinking creatively about how they might solve challenges when they are allowed back inside their respective buildings. In the face of this, Major Tony Perez, director of Spark for AFWERX, built a creative coalition to turn a three-day conference into a one-day virtual affair that hosted over 150 distinct activities with attendees from around the globe and managed to extract the same value. 

BMNT had already been prepared to support the in-person Spark Collider event on behalf of AFWERX. As the conference pivoted to a virtual event, the number of participating SBIR companies increased threefold and BMNT’s role also expanded significantly.  BMNT’s Aurora – a platform that uses problem-centric data cultivated since 2013 to map connections between potential solutions and national security problems – enabled the team to create a “Collider Bot” built specifically to support the Collider event. Aurora’s powerful matchmaking capability reduced the time and effort it took to match government problems to industry solutions; the Collider Bot increased the likelihood that connections occurred successfully.

Here’s how it worked:

  • Aurora auto-ingested solution information provided by the SBIR awardee companies.
  • During the event, government attendees initiated a text conversation with the Collider Bot, which collected information on the challenges they were facing.
  • Matches were generated automatically by Aurora, then reviewed by BMNT for quality assurance.
  • Government attendees received a text from the Collider Bot with contact information for the top matched companies.

Over the course of the virtual Spark Collider, the Collider Bot connected 190 relevant companies to over 60 problems from 50 government attendees. These attendees can now explore solutions to their national security challenges with companies that have already obtained funding to help them. Technology replaced conference-goers’ arduous task of hand-matching problems to potential solutions. 

At the conclusion of the event, Major Perez acknowledged that even with in-person events, one cannot rely on chance encounters to make a real impact. 

“[Aurora] enables problem/solution matching at a scale that has never been possible. We know there is an abundance of both problems and solutions; but problem/solution matching has been based on ad hoc activities, manual processes, and/or serendipity. [Aurora] enables government users to focus their resources [on] the opportunities with higher probabilities of being the “right” solution. While we’ve limited the scope of the [Aurora] for this Spark Collider event, there’s potential to expand this capability in many different ways.”

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