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Learning From The Social Web To Advance Research Networking

Five questions with technical architect Eric Meeks about what OpenSocial is, what academic institutions interested in using it should keep in mind, and about opportunities for the business sector to tap into that offer a lot of value and social benefit.

Eric Meeks has worked for numerous startups in Silicon Valley including Ning, one of the first social network systems to support OpenSocial. Since 2009, he has been the lead technical architect for the Clinical & Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), the first academic biomedical institution using OpenSocial in an open source research networking product. He is also a founder of the Open Research Network Gadgets (ORNG).

Q: OpenSocial is built upon the idea that ‘the web is better when it’s social’. It encourages developers to build standardized web applications that can be shared across different social networking platforms. How can academia and biomedical research benefit from OpenSocial?

If you look at the topography of all the different research institutions, many of them run different back-end systems, from Windows to Linux, Oracle to MySQL to SQL Server, and all with custom data models. Despite differences in our underlying systems, however, we’re becoming very common in that we deploy research networking systems to help investigators find and connect with one another. Some systems are based on Profiles, some on VIVO, some are custom like LOKI, CAP, or Digital Vita. As much as we want to share new features and applications to extend these systems, it’s really difficult to do that because the applications are hard-coded and tailored to our specific institutional databases. As a consequence, many applications are rebuilt for the various systems. OpenSocial allows us to change that.

By agreeing upon a solution that is standardized by a large community, we can agree upon a way to sharing these things. We can build one version, share it amongst everybody, and be more cost-effective. In other words, implementing OpenSocial makes applications interoperable with any social network system that supports them. Academic research institutions can use OpenSocial to open up their websites so that multiple people can add new features and applications and they can all do it at the same time, and independently of one another. ‘A platform beats an application every time,’ as O’Reilly Media put it. I see that as extremely powerful. It’s the only way I see to solve the problem that we have with different institutions deploying different research networking tools.

Q: What are some of the ways that the social web and OpenSocial are relevant to academia?

In research as in in other areas of life, communication and collaboration are supported by relationships. At their core, research networking systems are similar to social networking systems like Facebook, LinkedIn or Ning. They are showing a researcher’s expertise and how researchers are connected to each other.

The difference is that the social ‘friend’ in an academic network is embellished with different attributes such as co-authorship, mentorship, and shared areas of research. Research networking systems were created to leverage and enhance these academic relationships.

Q: You lead the OpenSocial efforts at UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. How would you describe your work to improve research networking?

We’re working with researchers and administrators to identify needs for applications that are appropriate for research networking tools. The gadgets that we have developed are intended to fill some of the gaps that exist. They allow individuals to update their research profile by adding presentations hosted at SlideShare, data that indicates an interest in mentoring, and relevant web links. Gadgets also make it easy to export publications in different formats from any profile, and help users build lists of people based on common attributes like research interests. And finally, a more generic Google Search gadget broadens the existing Profiles search to include free-text fields like the profile narrative and awards. All of these applications are available to any institution that wants to utilize them. (See the full gadget library.) It is our hope that our library of free gadgets will grow as more institutions join the OpenSocial community.

Right now, we’re in the process of building the community, which also means that the first members of this community don’t really get to benefit from it, but that’s changing. Wake Forest University, for example, has adopted OpenSocial and is using one of our applications. But they also built their own applications and made them available for free. Andy Bowline, Programmer at Wake Forest University, created a gadget that matches NIH reporter grant data with researchers’ profiles to identify grants that may be appropriate for a researcher to look into. Andy reached out to the NIH OER Grant Search team and got permission to scrape their website on a daily basis. The gadget grabs the data and throws them into a search engine. It also talks to the web service that Andy built on top of that to find matching grants. Andy not only shared the gadget that does this, but they also allow us to use their web services. That’s exactly what we want to see. We’re not competing. On the contrary, we’re trying to do the same thing. By using OpenSocial we can do it together.

Most excitingly, our OpenSocial code is becoming an official part of both the Profiles and the VIVO products. We have been working with both developer teams of both products supporting OpenSocial in our development environment. It’s great to see the same gadgets running in both of these two different systems, especially when you consider that the technology stacks between the two products couldn’t be more different.  Profiles runs on Microsoft technologies while VIVO runs on Java.  However, since they are both supporting OpenSocial, those differences don’t matter; the gadgets run in either environment without alteration.

Q: What tips do you have for academic institutions interested in adopting OpenSocial

There are a few things. I think it is helpful to have internal discussions with your development team and web strategy leaders to discuss how existing applications could be repurposed in a research networking site. Not all applications are suited for this type of deployment of course, but for some it may be the best way to make sure that these applications are seen and used.

OpenSocial is a huge API. I recommend integrating with Apache Shindig, which is the reference standard for OpenSocial. It shows you in ‘living code’ what an OpenSocial website should do and it also serves as a library to make your website OpenSocial compliant. LinkedIn, Google, Nature Networks and others are using it.

I also recommend taking advantage of the applications we already developed to help save time and money. We’re giving out both the applications and the code we use to convert our website to be OpenSocial-enabled, which lowers the technical bar quite a bit. It’s easy to apply the code in a few days.

Another important lesson that we learned is the need to prepare for managing expectations and overcoming political hurdles. OpenSocial is extremely powerful, but as with any technology, it doesn’t do everything and it does require some amount of technical investment.

It is also helpful for interested groups to know that we have combined OpenSocial with the Resource Definition Framework (RDF) standard that is core to VIVO and can now also be found in Profiles and LOKI. RDF is a component of the semantic web and Linked Open Data. When applications support RDF it is much easier for them to share data. As a matter of fact, the CTSA network recommends that institutions use VIVO compatible RDF within their research networking tools so that all of our data can be accessed more easily. With OpenSocial, we are able to use VIVO RDF to expose much richer data to our gadgets than the OpenSocial specification originally allowed. This is a great win and allows us to build gadgets that are very specific to our biomedical researcher needs without having to sacrifice interoperability.

If your institution uses a product like VIVO or Profiles that you think would benefit from being OpenSocial, we definitely want to hear from you, because we want to make sure that we have the same flavor of OpenSocial across our products that are truly interoperable. And, consider joining our new initiative called Open Research Networking Gadgets (ORNG), pronounced “orange.”

Q: Originally, OpenSocial was designed by corporations such as Google and MySpace Google for social network applications. While OpenSocial is seeing wider adoption in enterprise companies, that adoptions has been slower in the academic biomedical arena. What would you like to see from the business sector?

I would like for industry to recognize that there is an emerging market here that they can tap into. It’s a market that has a lot of value, a lot of social benefit, and a lot of wonderful brands behind it such as UCSF, Harvard, and Cornell. This is the kind of work that industry should be proud to be a part of, and they can convert that into a marketing message. I also want industry to know that we would like to work with them.

What we don’t want is for OpenSocial to drift off into some area where it’s dominated by the entertainment or finance industry and no longer viable to science and academia. The OpenSocial Foundation is a main driver in this respect, and they are eager for adoption by people and institutions working in the health sciences. The Open Social Foundation is much more targeted at collaboration and productivity as opposed to entertainment.

Q: What’s your vision for OpenSocial at UCSF and for academia in general? 

A standard only has value when it has adoption across multiple platforms, so we want to promote it and build a community. We also want to be a part of that community to be able to share the benefits of the networking effect. Right now research networking systems only give us a hint of what they’re capable of doing. People today are using these platforms to find out about one another, and even this is happening in a limited sense. People should be using these platforms not just to find out about one another, but to interact and get things done. That’s what people are doing with LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. With a strong OpenSocial community we can advance and extend current research networking systems much faster and cheaper to give researchers and administrators the opportunity to be hyper-connected and hopefully more productive.

The original article was posted on the website of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at UCSF.

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