With the spectacle of the out-of-control GSA conference in Las Vegas in his rear view mirror, CDC’s social media guru Adam Arthur has his work cut out developing virtual conferences for the federal government.

Arthur, the CDC’s Virtual Platform Initiative Lead, is in the process of creating virtual conferences as a money-saving alternative to flying workers offsite, paying for their hotels, food and team building activities.

CDC launched its first virtual pilot at the four-day Public Health Informatics Conference on Aug. 21, 2011. There were 1,600 people at the event at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Atlanta and 1,875 CDC employees from around the world logging on to watch in real time.

“A virtual conference is probably your next social media,” said Arthur (pictured above at a recent virtual conference). “We are stewards of the taxpayer dollar and this is a possible answer.”

Virtual conferences had an initial appeal as a green solution, Arthur told Breaking Gov. But it’s real appeal is in saving money as federal agencies budgets tighten. It is a service that is generally regarded as secure in the cloud and makes it possible for many more agency representatives to “attend” from their office desktop or laptop, Arthur said.

“I proposed this in 2009, seeing the writing on the wall. Everyone knew budgets would be slashed. Costs would need to be cut,” said Arthur 38, who works from CDC’s Atlanta headquarters.

A virtual conference is probably your next social media.”

Virtual conferences don’t alleviate the need to invest time and technology to make such events productive. Arthur said a virtual conference would cost an agency between $30,000 and $200,000 for services available on the GSA schedules, depending on the number of participating locations.

That’s far less than the $823,000 spent when GSA took 300 GSA employees to Las Vegas for a four-day extravaganza, including a clown, a mind reader and expensive meals that cost top GSA executives their jobs and is now under investigation by the Justice Department.

CDC has contracts with two companies partnering to provide virtual conference services:
Strategic Management Services and Intellix.

With these contracts in place, CDC’s initiative would give the federal government the tools to hold conferences that a worker can participate in from his desktop or laptop instead of spending thousands of dollars to travel to an event, an expensive proposition for every federal agency these days.

Arthur is exploring two kinds of conferences: one event would feature a virtual look at a live conference, taking participants to the keynote speeches, presentations and exhibit displays and a second type where presenters deliver their keynotes and panel discussions into the virtual space with no live event taking place.

“We want to do as much interactive and real time events as possible,” said Arthur. His work is finding a groundswell of interest all over CDC and from other agencies that see the virtual conference as a great alternative to offsite events.

His office hopes to put on five virtual events this year, including a CDC Centers for Excellency – an all-virtual conference that includes a virtual town hall meeting.

Arthur is in early stages of talks for a public health conference and local portal for state, local, tribal and territory health employees and is working on another conference on how to create best practices around electronic health records.

“We expect to do five more events this year so we can say without question this is a viable solution,” Arthur said.

His own background includes working as a media specialist for the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources and has frequently consulted for Web 2.0 applications and Internet technology. He is one of 55 GovLoop.com Community Leaders. In his spare time, he does media production and designs virtual environments for various platforms.

His work developing virtual conferences is still in the experimental stage. Arthur said he still has to prove that virtual conferences are cost effective. So far, the evidence is looking good,

“We’re definitely breaking some new ground,” Arthur said. “If we’re going to do this, we want to do it right.”