Taro gets the social networking treatment

John Cho is a plant pathologist and taro breeder at the University of Hawaii. A few days ago he posted a youtube video on his Facebook wall. It shows some very successful trial results from the Dominican Republic. The experiment in question is the evaluation for taro leaf blight resistance of some hybrids from Dr Cho’s breeding programme. Unfortunately, the interview with pathologists Drs Graciela Godoy and Miguel Martínez of the Instituto Dominicano de Investigaciones Agropecuarias y Forestales (IDIAF) is in Spanish, and John doesn’t speak that language. So he asked his Facebook friends to help, and one of them, an agronomist from Puerto Rico, sent him a translation. Now John knows that the promising hybrids are 2002-21f (H2 to IDIAF), 2000-109 (H4) and MS3 (H6) — and so do we,1 because John provided the gist of the results as a comment on the video on his wall. Isn’t social networking great? Now, if only that information would make it into some germplasm database. Any germplasm database.

LATER: It gets better. In the latest exchange of comments on the original video post, John’s Spanish-speaking agronomist friend tells him how some of his hybrids did in Puerto Rico. Who needs databases?

  1. Or, at least we who are John’s Facebook friends. []

17 Replies to “Taro gets the social networking treatment”

  1. Probably we can combine both ways, and add to germplasm databases one extra layer to link all sort of comments, media, and files that relates to an accession or crop. But the question might be if scientists will be as social, if this function is provided by a website that relates to their area of work?

  2. I guess. Or maybe we should abandon the structured database approach — which has been spectacularly unsuccessful, after all — and try something else?

  3. Even social networks can’t do it without a database in the background, we probably need a more interactive approach to link new types of information to the database, and more attractive way to presented.

  4. Luigi, I’d rather go for Fawzy’s suggestion. It would be cool if we could connect both and reach out to the different user types. There are people who need and trust only the database type of information and others who are comfortable, productive and creative with more informal, network type of knowledge sharing. The fact is that the second type of user group has been heavily neglected in the past.

    Just to stimulate the discussion, and from our KM4Dev community listserv where a paper on KM has been offered for revision and discussion: “But the use of all this technology [Web 2.0] seems to be preventing learning to be formalized. Or better said, knowledge is kept in a flux where it can’t age and mature to a systemized body. Knowledge is being fragmented and distributed in bits. The new technologies become an enabling medium of bypassing codification without providing it with a theoretical frame or other embodying structure or reconstituting environment.” (Alfonso Acuna)

    What do you guys think?

    My experience with the knowledge management for development community KM4Dev shows that we have been very much able to reconstitute environments by collecting many bits and pieces into our community knowledge wiki and toolkits with the principle advantage of strengthening the community. So we end up with some form of database but as an end result of a community effort / conversation.

    1. You’re probably right. It’s just that I’ve started wondering whether the conventional relational database is necessarily the best solution for the specific purpose of making evaluation results on germplasm useful to the people that need it. What about a more people-centred social networking approach? That is, what about putting the people who are doing the evaluation and using the germplasm at the centre of the process, rather than the germplasm. As in the taro example. Let breeders post their comments and general views on germplasm on Facebook, and let other breeders browse the results and provide their own comments. Wouldn’t that get the relevant information to the people that need it faster and more effectively than accession x descriptor databases?

  5. Databases are type of ready-to-use for breeder’s. If you are in a small organizations like universities with no storage facitlity etc., these types of databases are like treasures.

  6. Databases are great if they actually manage to collate the available information from diverse sources. The meaningful linking of individual items is the challenge. The current problem of plant genetic resource documentation could be envisaged as one of fragmentation in an archipelago of data islands. While social networking is great for creating knowledge and communicating it, a reliable body of information about plant genetic resources collated in a user friendly manner is essential, especially when sifting through an ever increasing body of data.

  7. A lot of breeder knowledge is tacit, and only gets to the surface during face-to-face contact, as Buddenhagen explains in his video. I think Facebook is interesting because is provides a partial electronic substitute for face-to-face contact. IITA banana breeders may need to travel to Asia, but don’t have to rely on SINGER, newsletters and emails to maintain a network of germplasm and knowledge exchange. Databases just reflect a tiny bit of the breeding process and not really suited for quick data exchange. Email requires you to make your question explicit first. Facebook allows for more fluid communication.

    It is good, though, if trial data eventually lands in some database. Pooling data should help to compare and get insights that would otherwise be lost. It´s not Either/Or (to alternate our favourite strawman philosopher).

    Perhaps apart from relational databases we need more visualization/analysis/data mining tools to exploit the databases in a more interactive, intuitive way. Also, it would be really good to have possibilities to compare your own data from yesterday´s measurements on your harddisk with the big database on the internet — ideally in a few simple steps (clicking your way through a well-designed, visual software).

    A lot of the database stuff we’re starting to do now (georeferencing, gap analysis, linking trials to climate data, etc.) should be available in some handy software in the near future. So breeders can start to play with it, make nice pictures to share through Facebook with colleagues, and integrate these insight in their workflow.

  8. The interest for social networks has been growing with the emergence of the Social Sciences. Social Networks tools provide one instant way of “fishing” for large and sometimes unpredictable feedback by posting information, news, results. A good example of using social networks are the ‘Biobltiz’: ‘ is a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible’ (National Geographic definition, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioBlitz). So, social networks are here used here as amplifiers to largely collect observations of specimens in the field/nature/cities that complete the scientific species inventories. A mini-Bioblitz will be launched for the 2010 meeting of TDWG-Biodiversity information standard to test tools for the use of citizen sciences and building Atlas of Biodiversity. Please keep an eye because it could be used for observation of crop diseases, crop specimen in particular environment.

    Databases and social network are not exclusive but databases have to remain hidden behind intuitive interfaces. I thought about creating a SINGER group on Facebook to launch debates on the evolution, use, improvement, but just thought at it at the moment because the single post on SINGER I did on Facebook sometimes ago had no comments.

  9. Very, very interesting post & discussion here folks. Anyone of you care to write it up as a short article for our webmagazine? Please contact me for more details!

  10. I think the answer is not so complicated really. We need dedicated social networks with groups inside them who (1) take responsibility for reviewing and introducing existing literature sources, (2) reviewing and introducing existing databases (with accessible or not) and their curators, (3) moderating, reviewing and summarising discussion threads, and (4) producing an original network newsletter with layout than can be printed and sent out to people who are not in the network. The network I have created (The Research Cooperative) is designed to allow anyone undertaking any kind of research-related publishing activity (in any medium) to seek and request help with writing, editing, translation, and so on. We currently have 1300 members (researchers, editors, translators, publishers), and if this can reach 10,000 then the creative synergies for all kinds of networking and publishing projects may become very significant. I hope.

  11. Very nice Ning site and successful! The key elements are dedicated moderators ! :-) The breeders with whom I am in Hyderabad do not use social networks tools and the few who do, do not yet address work related topics. However, if you ask them about the web site of their dreams, they rank high the ability to contact their peers on the web and be alerted whenever a new item is posted. They seek for exchange of expertise. So, sounds like a Ning type site or Facebook group could do it!

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