A tweet caught Jessica Ball's attention at last year's meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). A panel had been added about the trial in which six Italian scientists had been found guilty of manslaughter for their handling of earthquake-risk communication, shortly before a magnitude-6.3 quake struck the city of L'Aquila in 2009, killing 309 people. Ball, a PhD student in geology at the University at Buffalo in New York, added the session to her itinerary using the iPad app for the AGU meeting in San Francisco, California. During the panel, she tweeted about speakers' key points, including the importance of separating the roles of science advisers and civil authorities.


Ball also met geologists and a science-communication expert for drinks during the conference — organized through Twitter. She used her tablet to show other attendees videos about the lava domes that she studies, and displayed a poster with Quick Response (QR) barcodes that allowed people to access the same videos online using their smartphones.

Conferences have come a long way in recent years. Attendees used to base their planning on phonebook-sized paper programmes that they lugged around in tote bags, and communicate only with people they happened to bump into at coffee breaks. Now, a host of apps on smartphones and tablets allows attendees to expand their networking, search meeting programmes, get schedule updates, discover under-the-radar events, share information and offer better explanations of their work. As long as attendees make sure that they don't spend the entire meeting glued to screens, mobile tools can facilitate lively online conversations, inform research and pave the way for face-to-face meetings.

Following the buzz

Twitter is by far the most popular channel for online conference chatter. The event's official hashtag can lead users to organizers, panellists and attendees already tweeting about the meeting. Tweets about an upcoming session might suggest whether it is worth attending, and comments about an ongoing or completed panel allow people to pick up the main points if they couldn't attend. “It takes the stress out of feeling like you have to be everywhere at once,” says Kelle Cruz, an astronomer at Hunter College in New York. Scientists also can track the buzz about their own talks by creating a hashtag specifically for their session.

Twitter is also a crucial networking tool, helping people to connect with fellow attendees who have similar interests. Users can invite Twitter connections for coffee or look out for their name tags at the conference, paving the way for an in-person introduction, says Emily Jane McTavish, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “That's made a big difference to me at meetings where I didn't know people,” she says. Jeremy Yoder, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Minnesota in St Paul, used Twitter to help to organize a lunch for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender scientists at the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Ottawa last year. And although these connections might not lead to immediate work advantages, one never knows who might be on one's next grant-review panel or job-search committee, says Cruz.

Save it for later

People sometimes tweet details about sessions they attend, as a way of taking notes. Holly Bik, a marine genomicist at the University of California, Davis, finds that her notes are often too long-winded if she types them out in a word-processing programme, but Twitter's 140-character limit helps her to distil out the main points. She also can quickly add links to papers. Later, she uses Storify (a website that is also available as an iPad app) to collect and archive relevant tweets so that she can easily access them later.

Kelle Cruz: “It takes the stress out of feeling like you have to be everywhere at once.” Credit: JACQUELINE FAHERTY

Tweeting helps scientists who can't attend the conference to follow important developments, which is particularly appreciated at small meetings. Some people tweet to ask for clarification from other attendees during a talk — for example, to request help understanding a figure, or to find out what an acronym stands for. Users should make sure, however, that the conference doesn't have a policy against tweeting — and should be careful not to disrupt the presentation by talking on their phone, leaving the ringer on or typing ceaselessly. They should also take care to avoid tweeting or posting excessively harsh critiques of data or presentations, given that they can be seen by just about anybody online — including the speaker. Critiques in general are acceptable, but users need to be as diplomatic digitally as they would be in person.

Twitter can also be a good way to communicate with meeting organizers, who may be able to answer logistical questions such as where to eat or how to deal with problems with the audiovisual equipment. It can be less disruptive than ducking out of a session to make a phone call, and multiple organizers and attendees will be able to see the question, increasing the chances of a quick response. At the 2013 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston, Massachusetts, in February, organizers responded to tweets sent to the official @AAASMeetings account within minutes, says Tiffany Lohwater, director of meetings and public engagement for the association in Washington DC.

Tweeting at conferences can even lead to unexpected career developments. McTavish once tweeted about the lack of other female attendees at a computer-science workshop. One of her Twitter followers happened to be organizing a computational phylogenetics hackathon — a meeting of biologists and programmers to develop new software tools — and invited McTavish to apply to attend. Her participation in the hackathon led to a paper and an opportunity to reconnect with the scientist who ultimately became her postdoc supervisor.

Other social-media tools may also help attendants to navigate the myriad sessions and plenary events at a conference. Organizations sometimes post meeting updates or highlights on their Facebook pages; users can 'Like' the page to see the updates in their news feed. And when the meeting is over, attendees can maintain connections by sending 'friend' requests through Facebook or the more professional LinkedIn.

Conference logistics

Increasingly, conference attendees can turn to apps that are tailored to specific meetings. The quality and features vary, but such apps often include schedules, abstracts, presenter biographies, PDF and PowerPoint files uploaded by speakers, venue maps, lists of nearby restaurants, and ways to take notes and save contacts. Some of them also work offline — a boon when the conference Wi-Fi gets bogged down. “You don't want to be sitting there waiting for pages to load,” says Silke Fleischer, co-founder of ATIV Software in Santa Rosa, California, which develops event-planning and conference apps. Among others, it has provided app software for the 2012 Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, which had about 28,000 attendees.

Conference organizers can build their apps with various providers to get a range of features. ATIV's EventPilot app lets users view downloaded PowerPoint slides, which is useful if the projector quality is poor. Attendees can also exchange contact information by scanning QR barcodes on each other's phones, even without an Internet connection.

EventMobi in Toronto, Canada, provides a live polling feature that allows speakers to ask questions of the audience and get a real-time chart of the results. An app by Bizzabo in New York suggests attendees with similar interests for users to contact, and Bloodhound in San Francisco will soon offer a feature to look at sessions that users have chosen to attend, and suggests others that they might like.

Users can turn to other apps if the conference software doesn't offer the required features (see 'Appy to help'). And some apps can help researchers in the lab, too (see Nature 484, 553–555; 2012).

Online tools and mobile devices have even infiltrated the old-fashioned poster session. Researchers can use websites such as Kaywa to generate QR barcodes to embed in their posters. Viewers can scan the barcodes with a smartphone or tablet to automatically open a web page showing videos, linked papers or further data.

Apps come in handy for hallway conversations, too. Ball uses Skitch and Paper to draw pictures with her finger or a stylus, illustrating concepts in her volcano research — the locations of hot springs, for example, or the direction of fluid movement in a lava dome. She can e-mail the pictures to others or save them as ideas for figures.

Carol Finn, president of the AGU, uses the Keynote app on her iPad to show slides from her presentation, and EarthObserver to demonstrate features of the area she is studying, such as topography. For Android users, Quickoffice Pro and Google Earth, respectively, perform some of the same functions.

In future, other conference interactions may also move into apps. The AGU is considering adding scoring forms for its student-paper competition — in which volunteer attendees judge students' presentations at poster sessions — to its app. It is also thinking about adding discussion boards on which people can ask presenters questions about uploaded posters or recorded talks. This year, Bizzabo will start offering polling so that registered users can vote on their favourite sessions.

Apps with indoor mapping might one day pinpoint attendees' location in the building and direct them to the next session on their itinerary. Organizers could make conferences into a game by giving people rewards for going to specific activities or booths.

Some meetings might soon drop paper programmes all together. The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography in Waco, Texas, offered an app at its meeting for the first time in 2013, and will probably go paperless in a few years, says co-organizer Hans-Peter Grossart, a microbial ecologist at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Neuglobsow, Germany. However, the AGU and the AAAS plan to offer paper programmes for the foreseeable future.

Conference attendees do need to exercise caution when turning to the blizzard of digital tools. Taking photos of slides, or recording talks without the speaker's permission, is generally considered bad form. And users should try not to get distracted by the constant stream of tweets and notifications during real-life conversations. “You want to be present,” says McTavish. Emma Borochoff, a community manager at Bizzabo, agrees. “Connections aren't complete if they're just online,” she says.