12 August 2013

Traveling Virtually: How to Work Effectively with Less Travel

Bryan Miller Gemini Observatory / NSF's NOIRLab

Maintaining professional connections, running experiments, and disseminating results are key parts of the scientific process. Therefore, astronomers have long required and enjoyed frequent travel for attending meetings, observing, and giving seminars/colloquia. However, in the current era of shrinking budgets we are forced to consider how grant funding is best used, and part of the solution may be to find alternatives to air travel. It is an opportunity to assess whether all the travel we do is required. Improving technology now allows us to do remotely much of the work that previously required a physical trip. Reduced travel has the added benefits of reducing astronomy’s large per-capita carbon footprint and doing our part to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming. This article reviews some of the alternatives to travel and seeks to provide recommendations on how to work remotely effectively.


Budget pressure and technology improvements are now driving a trend for more virtual meetings. NSF grant review panels are now done virtually, saving significant money and travel time. Committee members have had positive experiences with these reviews. The Gemini International Time Allocation Committee (ITAC) used to hold a two-day physical meeting requiring international or long-distance travel by most members. This is now done in roughly half a day with a virtual meeting that uses custom online interactive software. Many other examples exist and are only becoming more common. With the proper tools and organization virtual meetings can be very effective.

Different solutions for effective remote meetings are appropriate for different environments. Hardware solutions such as Polycom systems can create “virtual conference rooms” that are appropriate for times when groups of people can be assembled into a few locations. These tend to be used by institutions with conference rooms that can afford the dedicated hardware. Polycom conferences work well for face-to-face discussions and non-interactive presentations (e.g., slides). However, too many connections make the images of the participants small and hard to see. The screen resolution is usually too low to view computer screens for interactive work or demonstrations. Collaborative work probably requires specialized software (e.g., the Gemini ITAC software), or web services such as Google Drive, Microsoft Office 365, or equivalents. WebEx is another commercial product that allows sharing of presentations in a virtual conference setting that one may consider. We have learned that it is used extensively for NASA meetings and by observatories like NRAO.

Software solutions such as Skype, Google+ Hangout, and GoToMeeting are effective on most computers and mobile devices and seem to be better for smaller groups and interactive demonstrations. They are generally cheaper than Polycoms, but reliability and smoothness of communication may depend on the service selected and the number of connections required. Since these solutions run on normal computers, they are good for very distributed groups and individuals. They tend to have higher screen resolutions than Polycoms, allowing for a more personal experience and effective screen sharing. One might consider using Polycoms in addition to a screen-sharing service as an alternative.

While camera resolutions and bandwidth continue to improve, virtual meetings will not replace the experience of physically meeting and interacting with colleagues. Detecting subtle visual clues that are important for good communication requires good bandwidth and resolution. If you are going to be doing frequent remote meetings with the same people then it is very useful to start with a physical meeting. The better you know the person on the other end of the fiber, the easier it is to videoconference with them.

While a lot of meetings can now be attended virtually, sometimes physical meetings are important and appropriate. The point is to be selective about the meetings you attend in person. If you are organizing or planning to attend a meeting there are a few things that can be done to minimize the amount of travel needed and the carbon footprint of the event. First, avoid meetings that require as much or more travel time than the duration of the meeting, e.g., flying from the US to Europe for a two-day workshop. These are good opportunities for virtual meetings.

Second, consider organizing short but related meetings together so that the attendees don’t have to travel as often. This is an obvious time and money saver that is becoming more and more common. The AAS offers various services to encourage combining meetings, including splinter sessions and “meetings in a meeting” during AAS meetings. Recently the TMT Science Forum was organized back-to-back with its Science Working Group meeting. These are just two of many examples.

Meeting organizers should consider having the meetings in central locations near major airports that minimize the travel distance for all participants. Consider holding meetings that are accessible with a single direct flight rather than two flights (take-offs and landings are especially fuel intensive). Finally, consider webcasting and/or allowing virtual attendance at the meetings for participants who are not able to travel. These and other recommendations were discussed in the Sustainability Committee’s splinter meeting at AAS 220 in Anchorage in 2012. More information can be found on the Sustainable AAS page.


New modes of observing now allow for the collection of data without the need to travel long distances to observing runs that can be easily weathered out. Queue or service observing is a popular mode in which observatory staff executes the observations in the conditions for which they were requested.  This mode is also advantageous for observing objects with timing constraints such as eclipses, occultations, and supernovae and GRB follow-up. All space observatories and many major ground-based observatories — including Gemini, VLT, ALMA, and the VLA — offer or are exclusively queue scheduled. Next-generation facilities such as the ELTs are also considering, and should be encouraged to implement, queue scheduling.

Some astronomers feel that with queue observing they lose the ability to provide feedback to the observatory about their data, or lose that vital “personal connection” with the observatory. All queue-scheduled observatories provide some means for feedback and the processes have been improving over time. Gemini sends email daily to notify PIs of new data, with a link to download the files. PIs can then evaluate the data and send feedback or request changes to their contact scientists. For more immediate interaction, a new “eavesdropping” mode allows a remote PI to "look over the shoulder" of a queue observer via a Skype connection when the PI's observations come up in the queue. Data can be obtained in near real-time for on-the-fly evaluation. This mode is especially useful for complicated target acquisitions and when the target brightness, and therefore the exposure time, is not well known.

Other observatories such as Keck, LBT, Apache Point (APO), SOAR, and GBT provide remote observing where the observer controls the telescope from an office in their institution. ALMA is planning to move operations to Santiago, making it remotely operated for staff and saving them travel. VNC connections and/or special remote observing software are used to control the telescope and instruments and view data as if you were on-site. The observer is still subject to the vagaries of the weather and the Internet but avoids the time and expense of a long trip and can immediately evaluate the data and make adjustments.

With video conferencing it is helpful to know the people first; with remote and queue observing it is helpful to know the observatory first. Some observatories, like SOAR, APO, and GBT, require observers to make a site visit for training before they can observe remotely. Visiting a telescope with queue scheduling can teach you a lot about how its systems and instruments work so that you can get the most out of your telescope time. Classical, or visitor, observing is one way to visit, but not the only way. Gemini encourages both queue and classical PIs to visit for a week or two to learn the system, meet the staff, reduce data, and give a science talk. This is especially good for students. The visitors, and the observatory, get more out of the visit and the PIs go home feeling better connected to the facility and often become more effective queue observers.

Get Involved                         

The trends toward virtual meetings and remote/queue observing are being driven by a combination of budgetary and operations/flexibility considerations. These are also important steps toward making our profession more sustainable in the future, as the need to reduce the human carbon footprint becomes increasingly clear. In this, all of us have a role to play. Here are a few actions to consider:

  • If a facility that you use does not have a remote observing mode that you would like to use, contact them and advocate the idea. Most facilities desire feedback and ideas from their users.
  • Try holding meetings with colleagues and collaborators using the tools described above.
  • If you are organizing a meeting, consider the location of the meeting and remote presence options.
  • Encourage any agencies or facilities that do not have virtual meetings to consider these for the future.
  • Tell the community about your ideas and experiences at the AAS Sustainability Committee blog.

The major observing facilities are considering and implementing other ways to make themselves more efficient and sustainable.The AAS Sustainability Committee is organizing a splinter session on sustainability efforts at the major observing facilities at the 223rd AAS meeting in Washington, DC, in January 2014. Please stay tuned for more information or contact the Sustainability Committee by using the blog link above or by emailing Kartik Sheth for more details or if you are interested in participating.