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The art of the pivot: how Kiwi partners starred as APEC 2021 went virtual

The art of the pivot: how Kiwi partners starred as APEC 2021 went virtual

A bench of ICT service providers did the hard yards ensuring the first virtual APEC was a success.

In less than four months, APEC 2201 pivoted to virtual, with the help of key IT partners.

In less than four months, APEC 2201 pivoted to virtual, with the help of key IT partners.

Credit: Supplied

With many engaged to support a real-world conference, APEC 2021's bench of ICT partners were thrown a curve ball in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They, the broader public service and the government had to call on all their agility and innovation to pivot and take the global conference virtual on a tight timeframe. That meant managing change across hundreds of virtual meetings and events covering 21 economies in 11 different time zones.

As well as acknowledging support from his public service colleagues, APEC 2021's chief technology officer Stuart Gregory recently name-checked the contributions of Auckland-based events technology, digital innovation and activation agency Satellite. He also flagged major listed telco Spark and and its ICT services business CCL, which together delivered a fully integrated registration and virtual meeting platform, based on Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Teams and Microsoft Azure AD. 

“Hosting an entire year of APEC meetings is complicated, and that includes a lot of unique requirements specific to APEC," Gregory said. "The organisation has a lot of conventions and working structures that we needed to replicate in a virtual setting.”

For external assurance Gregory and his team recruited Tenzing, now owned by Indian giant Tech Mahindr, Qual IT, and a bench of ICT security experts: InPhySec Security, Aura Information Security and SEQA.

Stringent security

“There are some really stringent security requirements,” Gregory said. “While all meeting content is unclassified, it is ‘in confidence’ and so things that are discussed amongst members are kept in confidence to members.”

John Campbell (Qual IT)Credit: Supplied
John Campbell (Qual IT)

Even with all those requirements met, local officials wanted to retain the cadence of an in-person meeting. 

Finally, events management specialist Uno Loco made sure the whole thing ran as planned and looked great

"Underpinning all of this was a robust set of platforms and technologies that my team and I were responsible for designing, building and securing," Gregory said.

Planning for the event, which offers a powerful marketing platform for the host country, kicked off in 2017 with tenders for support systems and technologies. In November 2019, two months before news of a new coronavirus virus emerging in Wuhan, China, the APEC team went to market for a collaboration platform and broadcast services.

Planning for a real-world event continued until less than four month from the conference opening date earlier this month. The technology and platform aspects of the planned physical  event were largely complete.

To provide certainty in the face of pandemic travel restrictions, APEC officials opted for virtual delivery on June 30. However, as the first virtual APEC forum there was no template. The focus needed to shift quickly so global leaders, thought-leaders, and other participants could interact and carry out their meetings collaboratively, no matter how far apart.

Test, test, test

New Zealand quality assurance company Qual IT, for instance, was initially engaged to conduct quality assurance testing across APEC’s platforms to ensure they were ready for multiple in-person events across the APEC year.

It had to adapt quickly and play goalkeeper, providing assurance that the new technology required to underpin the online forum would be fit for purpose. This meant testing the delegate registration portal and the video conferencing service thoroughly to ensure they would deliver for every participant. 

Qual IT’s testing ensured the systems to be used worked on different laptops and operating systems, would work in different regions and time zones across the world, and ultimately would deliver a virtual APEC forum as seamlessly as possible to thousands of participants.

“The pandemic really turned the delivery model on its head,” said John Campbell, general manager of Qual IT central region.

Cheryl McCullagh, senior test manager, said essentially six months of work was squeezed into 12 weeks. Clear lines of communication, an understanding of the challenges, and collaborative working with partners was key.

“We were really focused on testing the end-user experience and making sure it was seamless for all participants,” she said. “This is a showcase event on the global stage for New Zealand, so it was vitally important that it ran smoothly.”

Tweaking and developing

As well as providing connectivity, Spark needed to tap Microsoft to tweak Microsoft Teams, the core meeting platform, to meet the needs of APEC.

“Our CCL team then brought their expertise to bear in customising the product and processes to fit the conventions required by a diplomatic meeting," customer director Grant McBeath told Newsroom.

Even getting hold of the equipment needed for APEC meeting rooms was no easy task due to disrupted global supply chains. On site tech support also had to be provided to work with the APEC tech team. 

A custom audio set-up also had to be developed so different officials speaking could weigh in as needed.

The APEC registration portal was also integrated with the Microsoft Teams platform to ensure everyone was who they said they were and where they were supposed and allowed to be.

At home, with nationwide and local lockdowns in force, New Zealand delegates had to be set up to attend meetings from home. Upwards of twenty Spark staff worked throughout the night, to fix any technical problems.

APEC New Zealand deputy secretary Andrea Smith said while COVID-19 forced everyone to change their plans, the virtual host year showed APEC’s work could continue even during a crisis.

“We knew it would be a challenge, but the entire APEC team was focused on making this work," Smith said.


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