ORNG at AMIA conference, in tweets

Eric Meeks from CTSI at UCSF presented on ORNG at the AMIA 2013 Joint Summits on Translational Science:





Leveraging the Social Web for Research Networking

Five Questions with CTSI Technical Architect Eric Meeks About the Benefits of OpenSocial 

This article highlights…

  • …what OpenSocial is and how it can help advance research networking, 
  • …what institutions interested in using OpenSocial should keep in mind,
  • …what the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at UCSF has done to promote OpenSocial in academia and to build a community of developers and supporters,
  • …and how the business sector can tap into this emerging market.

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 LOKICAP, 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 for 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.

This Q&A is part of “Digital Media & Science: A Perspectives Series from CTSI at UCSF” moderated by Katja Reuter, PhD, associate director of communications for CTSI. This series explores how digital media and communications can be used to advance science and support academia. 

Original post on CTSI at UCSF

Embedding OpenSocial in Moodle

The CTSI team uses Moodle for online learning, and OpenSocial to embed applications into UCSF Profiles.

Lausanne-based doctoral student Evgeny Bogdanov recently combined the two, turning Moodle into an OpenSocial container. He describes how he embedded OpenSocial into Moodle by developing a Moodle plugin that interfaces with Apache Shindig:

“We present here a plugin that allows to bring OpenSocial gadgets into Moodle. OpenSocial gadgets are rendered via Apache Shindig (extension of version 2.0 that supports Spaces). Moodle is a Learning Management System used in many Educational Institutions (Universities) to manage courses. It is a plugin based PHP application that can be extended by installing additional modules…There are two different OpenSocial plugins for moodle.…This plugin was developed within the ROLE Integrated Project and is already used in 5 courses at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.”

 Read more:

Using Research Networking Effectively in Academia: UCSF-CTSI Team Presents On National AMIA Panel

Three of us from the Virtual Home team at CTSI went to this year’s AMIA (American Medical Informatics Assoc) meeting in DC and presented on a panel with Griffin Weber of Harvard University. The panel was called “Four Steps to Using Research Networking Effectively at Your Institution”

Griffin spoke on cutting edge features of research networking tools, such as linked open data and social network analysis.

Eric Meeks of UCSF spoke on standard APIs, such as OpenSocial, to leverage a community of developers, I spoke about incentivize usage and understand your audience, and to round it out, Brian Turner spoke about using data, tools and strangers to improve user interfaces.

The panel presentation was a 90 minute break out session and we were happy to have a good turnout and an engaged audience. I think that the work that UCSF has put into the ‘social engineering’ of the tool has really paid off. Our usage and engagement numbers are on the rise and comparatively speaking, Griffin mentioned that our traffic is about 5-times that of what Harvard Profiles is currently getting.

In addition, Eric also had a poster session at the meeting!

The UCSF presentations will be up on Slideshare, available on the CTSI channel and via our individual UCSF profiles:


Open Notebook Science

Thinking about our recent posting  regarding project and document management, along with a number of postings on open source data, people might be interested in learning more about a movement that takes open source to a basic level.  As described in Wikipedia:

Open Notebook Science is the practice of making the entire primary record of a research project publicly available online as it is recorded. This involves placing the personal, or laboratory, notebook of the researcher online along with all raw and processed data, and any associated material, as this material is generated. The approach may be summed up by the slogan ‘no insider information’.

While not everyone thinks this is a great idea, a number of labs in a variety of disciplines have begun to embrace the concept.  Similar to the Creative Commons movement, there are a number of ways to implement open science in your lab (with associated logos, of course!).

So, does open notebook science have a place in biomedical research, and does it have a role in translational science?

Further reading:

Scientists, Social Media, and Web 2.0

Here are two interesting postings regarding science and the “new web”.

First, how do most labs view the use of social media?  Not very highly, if you believe the results from a recent survey by Lab Manager Magazine:

Laboratories are at the forefront of research and analysis. But when it comes to communication, they are followers rather than leaders and can be very slow to adopt innovations. The use of social media is a case in point, as a recent survey of nearly 200 lab managers revealed. There are six good reasons for labs to explore the opportunities offered by the social media…

This could also be part of a bigger event, which some say is the demise (or maybe transition) of science 2.0.  As David Crotty argues in “Not with a Bang: The First Wave of Science 2.0 Slowly Whimpers to an End“:

The Nature Network launched in 2006, organized around researchers in Boston, then went global in 2007, five years ago. It perhaps offered the high-water mark in terms of the irrational exuberance by publishers and other companies in building big Web 2.0 tools for scientists. For a time, the widespread adoption of these tools seemed inevitable, and business models were an afterthought when investing in revolutionary new technologies.

Five years on, reality has reared its ugly head, and, as is often repeated here at the Scholarly Kitchen, culture has trumped technology. It turns out that what works well for some cultures does not immediately translate into success in others. Rather than focusing on the needs of the research community, much of what passed for Science 2.0 was an attempt to force science to change — to make the culture adapt to the tools rather than the other way around.

Do we see either of these phenomena in our day-to-day interactions?