Resilience amid uncertainty

Despite social unrest in host city Hong Kong, organisers of two Natural Language Processing conferences shoulder on, drawing 1,900 attendees

Event brief
Despite the Hong Kong protests, the organising committee of two jointly-held events – the annual Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP) and the biennial International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing (IJCLP) went ahead to hold both events in the host city during November last year.

The EMNLP was developed from a series of Workshops on Very Large Corpora (WVLC), initiated by the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL)’s Special Interest Group on Linguistic Data & Corpus-based Approaches to Natural Language Processing (SIGDAT). WVLC, which started in 1993, was eventually renamed EMNLP in 1996.

Since then, the EMNLP, held in a different city each year, draws an average of 700 attendees each year who are interested in linguistic data.

Meanwhile, the IJCNLP, initiated in 2004 by The Asian Federation of Natural Language Processing (AFNLP) Associations, welcomes about 500 attendees a year. The goal of the IJCLP is to provide researchers and professionals a platform to share insights on natural language processing (NLP) and computational linguistics.

The five-day EMNLP-IJCNLP 2019, held primarily at AsiaWorld-Expo, comprised two days of workshops and tutorials, followed by the main conference, which was held across three days.

Delegates were treated to a welcome reception at Hong Kong Disneyland at the end of the second day of workshops and tutorials, so they could enter into the conference with a fresh mind, said the organisers.

Amid concerns over the Hong Kong protests, safety measures and contingency plans were put in place. Despite concerns over safety, the two conferences attracted a total of 1,900 participants, exceeding the organisers’ expectations.

Following a competitive bidding process, Hong Kong was deemed to be a suitable host city. The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), which held a site visit for the organising committee, as well as venue and hotel partners, were heavily involved in the bidding process.

In September last year, committee members discussed whether both events could go on as planned. This was in light of the uncertainty and concerns over safety as a result of the protests in Hong Kong, which had been making headlines since June.

Among the top concerns of the organisers were how to facilitate the movement of delegates to and from the venue or hotel smoothly, delegates’ safety and their overall experience in the host city.

Support from the HKTB, appointed ground operator China Travel Service (CTS) and venue operator AsiaWorld-Expo gave the committee the confidence to hold the conference amid uncertainty. Together with the three parties, the committee made contingency plans, including special transport arrangements.

The committee maintained close communication with HKTB and CTS on a day-to-day basis, obtaining information on traveller and transportation advice, among others.

Key takeaways
Delegates appreciated the committee’s proactive communication, which was pertinent considering their concerns on whether it was safe to travel to Hong Kong, said the committee.

In fact, the importance of communication cannot be overstated, noted Kelvin Wong, chair, local organising committee and associate dean, engineering, Chinese University of Hong Kong.

He urged event organisers to provide clarity, which encourages delegates to be more committed about their attendance. Additionally, he emphasised the importance of working with local authorities and partners, no matter the size of the event.

“They have all the know-hows and insights, all you need to do it reach out and ask,” said Wong.

Event: 2019 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP)
and the 9th International Joint Conference on Natural Language Processing (IJCNLP)
Organizer: Association of Computational Linguistics (ACL) and the Asian Federation of Natural Language Processing (AFNLP) Associations
Venue: AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong
Event date: November 3-7, 2019
Number of participants: Over 1,900