Thursday, 2 June 2011

Open communities - build or reuse?

I have drafted this blog a few times and I'm bored with the narrative. I'm therefore going to spit out the conclusion right at the start: if you want to engage a developer community for your project go to them, don't ask them to come to you (they almost certainly won't)...

As funding for open databases like NCBIs OMIM is cut, there tend to be fairly rational calls for the database curation to be opened up to the community (eg Manuel Corpas' recent blog post). The typical method is the addition to the project of a wiki interface that accepts community annotation. I've been at the birth of a few such projects. No names named, and here's why; I've also sadly attended their inevitable deaths from neglect when no bugger ever used the darned things. Whilst notable successes exist (EcoliWiki, SNPedia, the Polymath Project) building an open community from scratch is hard, very hard, and most projects are doomed to failure. I, for one, limit myself to participating in two or three projects at any one time, and need a very compelling reason to start contributing to a new one.

So, given that collaborative development does produce valuable products and individuals can be motivated to contribute, how do we go about finding our contributors? The solution is actually pretty obvious; don't build an open community from scratch - use an existing one! The shining example of this approach is the Rfam adoption of Wikipedia itself as the source of community‐derived annotation, with advantages described in this NAR paper, including;
  • Access to a large existing community of curators,
  • Access to well maintained, user-friendly curation tools,
  • Entries subjected to automated QC tools (bots),
  • Leading to improved database content (around 2500 contributions/year),
  • Plus the side effect of improved discoverability of the resource via Wikipedia itself. 

It will be interesting to see other annotation projects cotton on to this idea; Pfam already has, but it's from the same Bateman stable as Rfam, so might not count (I've already been chided for mixing the two over at this Tree of Life blog post on a similar subject). Away from annotation, for active and inclusive bioinformatics-specific open communities you have the OBF leading the way, and also Debian Med (now blogging here) who are leveraging the wider Debian Linux community for the benefit of the life sciences. Whether there will be open science projects that successfully leverage Twitter and other social media communities remains to be seen.

So; what's the point of all this? Oh yes - if you're serious about engaging a developer community for your project go to them, don't ask them to come to you. Got that?

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