Early thoughts about a collaborative meeting organized by mpow

Apr 15 2011 Published by under collaboration, scholarly communication

This will hopefully be reported in a while in some peer reviewed venue or at least a conference, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts down early on.  I’m part of an internally funded research project at MPOW (not linked from here, but you can easily google me) that is incredibly ambitious and has some risk. What are we trying to do? We’re trying “To provide actionable knowledge to decision makers, build capacity for communicating ideas, and create resilience through discovery.” That’s a pretty broad statement. Here’s the nutshell version: get scientists and decision makers together to address issues related to climate disruption, its mitigation, and adaptation to it. Our specialty is systems engineering, so that’s our approach.

The first way we’re starting on this is to hold a few conferences to develop prioritized lists of needs in a few key areas and to start building a community of interest supported by an online community. The conferences aren’t the standard sit-there-and-be-lectured-at type of thing. They involve breakout sessions with read aheads, polls, surveys, online comments, and a notetaker recording spoken discussion. The first of these was held this week with climate scientists and public health researchers and practitioners. It was pretty intensive with scheduling from 7:30am to as late as 8pm and with all the breakfasts, lunches, and one dinner provided there at the meeting location.

My concerns were facilitating communication across different areas of science and to decision makers as well as how a software tool can support this type of meeting. I really didn’t get to help much with the communication bit, unfortunately, but I did work pretty hard on the platform, alongside a web developer, a couple of software engineers, a noted psychologist who studies collaboration in science, a cosmologist, an astronomer, an atmospheric physicist, and others.

There are many platforms that did some of the things we wanted to do, but other future work is to provide a type of virtual observatory for climate data, so we were looking for something very flexible. We were also working on a shoestring, so we couldn’t just outsource a consultant to build what we needed. What we ended up with is a Drupal 6.2 installation. There were some plenary sessions but it’s the breakout sessions and the digital library that are probably the most interesting. For the breakout sessions, we had a session description, a bio of the moderator, room for notes from the note taker (with a scroll bar), and a forum-like threaded place for comments. The comments was also where files could be uploaded. In the sidebar, we had a listing of the accounts who were looking at the page (custom built), a list of the files that had been uploaded (custom built), and a place for polls. The concept was that the moderator would introduce the topic, but the conversation would involve all attendees (we expected up to about 20 per room). Attendees could share an image or a file to illustrate their point. The comments would be used to get input from the shy participants. The polls could be used to establish a starting place or rank whatever came out of the discussion. (I’m not including an image on purpose – I don’t have a blank one to show).

The digital library is pretty cool. The module we’re using will fill in the details if you give it a PMID. Since this first conference was about public health, we used that quite a bit. It also allows us to use the node number to quickly add a footnote or the whole citation wherever we want with a short macro.

As you might expect, there was a learning curve not only in using the site, but also in understanding what the site was useful for. Some of the moderators were all about getting the most out of the site while others didn’t get it or were afraid it would be distracting. In addition to the notetaker, each breakout had a facilitator to help everyone get logged in, to upload files, and to create polls on the fly. I was the facilitator for 4 sessions with 3 different moderators. Each session was different. Creating a poll to rank the 8 things that came out in discussion was tough to do on the fly, even for those who type fast.

The attendees, once they got used to not being on the internet (no checking e-mail!), and got logged in, seemed to do ok. A lot of them said they enjoyed that part of it. One part that got great feedback was the feedback session itself! That was essentially a threaded forum, but then we discussed the feedback and I took notes.

Attendees would be interested in receiving an occasional e-mail, but didn’t seem to really want to contribute to the site really. It was also suggested that we have regular virtual meetings using the site.

Anyway, lots more detail needed, lots more to say, but that’s it for now.

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