VIVO: Connecting the .Docs
by Barbara Brynko
Establishing a national network of scientists is no easy task. And as work continues on the 2-year project (aka, the Facebook for Scientists), gathering the information and plugging in the profiles will connect data from the first seven universities and institutions into one massive and easy-to-use network. But knowing at the onset that the platform could grow exponentially in scope and capabilities was essential. Of all of the possible tools available, what made VIVO stand out from the rest?
Initially, VIVO was developed in 2003 as a way to create a network of academic profiles, an innovation created by Jon Corson-Rikert, the head of information technology services at Cornell University’s Mann Library. In its first phase, VIVO proved its sustainability as it grew from an on-campus network for a single scientific discipline to a network of profiles covering all academic disciplines at Cornell.
Mike Conlon, director of data infrastructure at the University of Florida (UF) and principal investigator for the $12.2 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources, saw the advantages leaning in VIVO’s favor. First, Conlon says that VIVO was versatile. “It had the potential for adoption at various levels, at different schools and at a collection of schools, and for collaboration,” he says. Second, since VIVO is based on the semantic web, developers can design applications in a standard and open way. Third, VIVO can assimilate any data provided. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved,” he says. “Publishers and others provide data, and VIVO users get to use high-quality data.”
When UF librarians first saw VIVO in action at a conference at Cornell several years ago, they returned to their home bases with ways to incorporate it into their workflows. It simply made sense, according to Sara Russell Gonzalez, the physical sciences librarian at UF. It wasn’t long before UF started collaborating with Cornell, and based on VIVO technology, UF launched Gator Scholar with a limited focus on science. The seeds for innovation were planted.
Conlon sees VIVO’s technology at work behind the scenes. As a former CIO, he understands how information moves within an organization and how the institutions work. VIVO can handle the rigors of data integration while maintaining accuracy and granularity.
VIVO’s reliance on the semantic web in its fundamental approach and concept is another plus, says Conlon. “VIVO is entirely semantic-based,” he says, “which lets it create relationships as it consumes data and offers a simple ontology as a standard, while supporting subject-specific ontologies for concept search. This results in search that is precise and intelligent.”
As for data quality, Conlon says checkpoints will be established to ensure accuracy among and between the universities and institutions that will be part of an “ongoing conversation.” It’s to the institutions’ advantage to keep the data information clean and up-to-date since all the institutions will be drinking from the same well, using the data for their own needs. The data sources aren’t confined to simple profiles of academics. Other data will be incorporated, including information on people, grants, and publications, says Kristi Holmes, bioinformaticist at Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine. VIVO can connect faculty, as well as administrators, students, and librarians, with complementary research interests and search topics across campus and across the country, she says. Another plus is VIVO’s ability to keep data up-to-date automatically, so there’s no need for time-consuming manual updates on a continual basis.
The Core of the Conversation
The biggest challenge Conlon faces “is telling the story at the institutional level.” It just takes time for institutions and faculties to accept the technology and move forward with it. Gonzalez says she attended a department reception recently where VIVO became the center of the conversation. While she explained VIVO’s overall workings, her scientist husband chimed in unexpectedly by extolling VIVO’s other benefits for collaboration among scientists and universities. “We’re finding out from our faculty what they need,” says Gonzalez. “They are actually excited about the information since it’s available in one spot.”
Despite the geographic stretch among the participating institutions (UF, Cornell, Indiana University, the Weill Cornell Medical College, Washington University–St. Louis, the Scripps Research Institute, and the Ponce School of Medicine in Puerto Rico), the communication within the VIVO team has been practically seamless via videoconferencing, emails, and teleconferencing. The entire team gathered in Washington, D.C., before Christmas; it was a chance to have all the players meet face to face to gain better footing moving forward.
Conlon says he was a bit surprised at how fast the project has progressed in such a short time, but he’s “grateful that the public relations strategies worked. Calling this the ‘Facebook for Scientists’ helped us get hundreds of press hits around the world. But it’s so much more than that for scientists and the advancement of science. It’s a national network of scientists.” He was proud to report that the seven schools went live in late January (www.VIVOweb.org).
“The platform gives many different types of people on campus the ability to find rich data,” says Holmes. She also stresses the important role that libraries play as the communications hub on campus. Having VIVO’s reach through the university library is ideal since it can provide and disseminate information easily to all departments across campus. “Supporting VIVO through the library is just a natural extension of our role.”