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Building Virtual Communities for the Institute of Complex Adaptive Matter

Dr. Daniel Cox, professor of physics at UC Davis, oversees a large NSF contract to coordinate the web presence and activities of the Institute of Complex Adaptive Matter (ICAM). One of the primary objectives of Cox’s work is make research accessible to the academic community and to people who are interested in complex adaptive matter. As Cox explains, “we are a distributed network that tries to foster science in a large number of areas; to do this, we have to have a viable presence on the web.” Cox also explains that there are only a few members at each branch of ICAM, so their community primarily exists online. Consequently, Cox is particularly interested in building virtual communities around key conferences and workshops in the field.

To accomplish this, Cox enlisted Academic Technology Services (ATS) programmer Earl Schellhous to increase conversation and collaboration between attendees before, during, and after ICAM events. Schellhous added interactive elements to the event websites, which, Cox explains, “function as a seed for starting a virtual community. Not only do our members go to the webpage to see what will happen at the workshop, but they can also use the wiki functionality to start discussions before the meeting and to continue those discussions after.”

Additionally, Schellhous is exploring how to enhance the distribution of video recordings of the ICAM presentations. Currently, the videos are posted to SciVee.tv, which functions similar to YouTube, and manually embedded to the ICAM website. ATS aims to streamline the embedding process, and may also post the videos to Davis’ iTunesU and YouTube channel.

To learn more, visit the ICAM website; you may also enjoy EmergentUniverse.org, ICAM’s interactive online museum.

Technical Details, by Earl Schellhous

To create an interactive element on the conference pages, we used an embeddable wiki called dooWiki that was used much like a blog for scientists to post initiatives for one of the conferences. The ICAM site uses a content management system called ExpressionEngine (EE) and one of its features is a built-in wiki that resembles the Wikipedia with which we are all so familiar. We used the built-in EE wiki to provide a more general wiki for conference participants to post offerings.

Regarding the video content, Dr. Cox’s team uses a spreadsheet template provided by SciVee.tv to facilitate a bulk upload of video files from an ftp site. The spreadsheet has data such as the filename, title, and description; Dr. Cox would like to be able to use these same spreadsheets to feed embedded content on the ICAM site. There are still a couple of technical hurdles to get this working, but when it does, it may be available to faculty members who also happen to be ICAM members. We also have talked about the possibility of providing an interface for the propagation of these videos to other sites like iTunesU such as faculty can do at UC Davis on iTunesU.

We also created a way for ICAM members to put forth motions and vote on them online, which has some resemblance to social networking whereby voters can make comments or abstain as well as vote. We are currently engaged in upgrading the EE software itself and that upgrade will allow us to take advantage of newer add-ons. Some of these newer add-ons to EE offer Facebook-like features. We want to help Dr. Cox to build an online network for scientific collaboration and while I doubt that scientists would have much use for “liking” or “poking” each other, I do think we can borrow some ideas and methods from social networking to help provide an even more engaging experience on the ICAM site.

I’m excited about the future of the ICAM site and can’t wait to see what new ideas Dr. Cox will have for the ICAM site and IET ATS in the coming year.

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