My name is Mohamed Hussain and I am from the People’s Majlis of the Republic of the Maldives. I am going to talk about how we built the virtual chamber, at the moment that Covid-19 pandemic prevented us from having physical plenary sessions back in March, 2020.
First of all, I believe we were able to achieve what we did because most of the requisites were already met, such as the rule of procedure and the physical infrastructure. Fortunately, we did not have to amend the rule of procedure because it did not prevent us from having virtual plenary sessions, hence the house committee ruled that the plenary sessions should be conducted remotely until the health emergency has been lifted. The other prerequisite I mentioned is the physical infrastructure. Back in 2019, we had a major infrastructure upgrading project. As part of the project we have upgraded our chamber voting systems, broadcasting systems, servers, and also internet connectivity. We also had some high performance spaces that we acquired for another project.
On the software side, we had procured the Microsoft Office 365 licenses sufficiently for all our members and staff, giving us access to the remote meeting platform Microsoft Teams. Of course there are free online meeting platforms available, but there are many limitations when it comes to free programs, and already having Microsoft Teams licenses was a big advantage for us. When we had to switch from physical to virtual sessions in a short period of time, initially we had difficulty in providing the exact same features of a physical session, for example, how can we manage the requests to speak, voting, recording and broadcasting. It was much more complicated than before.
Now I’ll go through the components of the video platform and other tools that we have used to provide the solution. The main software component is the Microsoft Teams, which is the video platform we used for our virtual session, but compared to a physical session, there are limitations and we try to reduce those with other tools as much as possible.
The other tools that we have used include teams add-on Poly which is used for voting, remote access tools such as VPN and VNC, broadcasting tools such as the new Tech Tricaster and live streaming tools such as OBS Studio and Youtube. Unlike physical plenary sessions, where the Speaker of the House and the Secretary staff sit close by and can exchange conversations or documents during remote sessions, everyone is in their respective homes, so we had to provide an additional communication channel to facilitate this.
For this purpose, we set up a Discord server. Discord allows us to maintain a separate communication channel for administrative purposes, separately from the main video conferencing platform. Since all the hardware and software were at our disposal, our biggest task at hand was to set up those and configure the settings.
For physical connectivity and setting up of equipment, we had to obtain special permissions during the lockdown to go to the office and do the work, but some configurations can be done remotely. Setting up was just an important part of the job. Providing training and walking through the steps was much more challenging, because we had to conduct the training sessions remotely.
To provide access to the systems, user accounts were created and shared with all MPs. Initially, we spent a lot of time attending to MPs who were using the platform for the first time. We had numerous test meetings between secretary staff over the course of a week. After that, we had a good grasp of the ins and outs of the platform, and we did some training sessions for the MPs.
Training sessions were very well received overall.
Apart from occasional microphone or webcam issues, we did not have much difficulty in getting everyone online. If required, we provide any assistance to them directly through Microsoft Teams with the desktop sharing function.
Now, I will walk you through a typical virtual session. A dedicated staff is assigned the role of the organiser, who creates meeting sessions in advance and sends out the Microsoft Teams meeting invitations through email. The organiser also joins the Microsoft Teams meeting a few minutes before the session time and performs some housekeeping tasks. These include testing the sound and configuring meeting options, in our case, include assigning a presenter role to the secretariat staff and also to the speaker. This leaves all MPs joining the session with the attendee role, making it easier for us to keep track of the number of members present. This is especially useful for us to determine if there’s a quorum or the number of MPs present at a time of voting, for example.
Ideally, members will mute their microphones as they join the session, but it is also the role of the organiser to ensure this. Once in the session, Microsoft Teams chat feature is used to communicate with the MPs. They also use the chat feature to request to speak. However, the request to speak list is also maintained manually by the secretary staff and it is shared with the Speaker of the House through the dedicated Discord channel. When it is the turn for an MP to speak they unmute their microphones. Once they finish speaking, the organiser ensures that the MPs microphone is muted again. The secretary staff doesn’t unmute their microphones, so that unwanted noises do not get into the broadcasting stream.
The organiser prepares the voting using Poly and the link to the voting is posted in the chat panel for easy access. Poly is an add-on for Microsoft teams. In rare cases, some MPs are unable to cast the vote using Poly, they are requested to provide the vote by typing yes or no in the chat panel. Since we do not have a lot of MPs in our parliament, it is very easy to count the votes manually. The total number of MPs in our Parliament right now is 87.
Despite the success, we had some challenges along the way. For example, we had issues with user accounts and passwords. Resetting passwords just before the session starts was a challenging task, especially at the beginning of the lockdown. We also had encountered internet connectivity issues for some very few members, but overall the connectivity was good.
There were also glitches in the video streaming, for example, if the active speaker or if the member that is speaking has a very weak internet connection, the video is sometimes glitched, which is also broadcasted without any correction. And then there is acoustic feedback. Sometimes, when MPs rely on the laptops microphone and speaker, there is acoustic feedback. When the laptop’s microphone and speaker is used, it gives unwanted sound into the stream. So we request all participants to use headphones to avoid feedback. Also, there are other background noises which cannot be avoided. For example, when the MP is in a very noisy environment, the background noise gets into the streaming. Such cases cannot be controlled from our side, the only solution to this is to advise the participants to be in a quiet environment at the time of joining the session.
Sometimes there were issues with voting as well, but we were able to always do this manually. Those were the main points for the plenary session. We also conducted some committee sessions virtually, but, unlike plenary sessions, committee sessions were very easy to conduct, because there was not much moderation to be done, compared to plenary sessions.
I would like to share with you the lessons that we have learned through this. Sometimes it is not always possible to completely silence a participant without expelling them, for example, if the participant deliberately makes noise or disturbs the session. It is always possible for the participant to unmute themselves and start talking, but, even so, these are rare cases. The video stream can occasionally get stuck due to reasons beyond our control such as, the internet issues at their end.
We have learned that when we are conducting sessions virtually or remotely, the most important thing is to be patient. Sessions and cooperation from all participants are the key to holding a smooth session.
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