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Vol. LXII, No. 12
June 11, 2010

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Social Media Could Transform NIH Meetings

NHGRI’s Dr. Vivien Bonazzi organized the meeting on social media and “micro-blogging.”
NHGRI’s Dr. Vivien Bonazzi organized the meeting on social media and “micro-blogging.”

Some speakers provided links to their slides in real time. Participants posted such questions as: “What does the NHGRI consider a fair number for the cost per gigabase to analyze NexGen data?”

Others gave advice: “Don’t tie yourself too closely to current models, as they are changing.”

Welcome to the world of interactive conferences where micro-blogging gives everyone a voice in the meeting—even those who don’t attend. NHGRI ran two such meetings recently to figure out whether “cloud” computing could be used to manage the tsunami of data pouring out of next-generation sequencing machines now flourishing like toadstools on the front lawn after a spring rain.

Meeting organizer Dr. Vivien Bonazzi, program director for informatics and computational biology at NHGRI, decided the audience was tech-savvy enough to pay attention and use social media at the same time. But really, she just wanted to capture their ideas on the fly. “It’s a body of information I can look to for writing the meeting report,” she said. “I don’t have to just rely on my memory or program analyst notes.”

Bonazzi considered several micro-blogging companies that provide free Twitter-like services on the Internet. Micro-blogging is just like a blog, only shorter. Twitter limits blog bursts to 140 characters, which Bonazzi decided was too short. Plus she wanted to keep the session closed, not open to just anyone surfing Twitter who might clog up the conversation with irrelevant comments. So she selected shout’em (, which lets users type up to 1,024 characters, enough for a more substantial post. Moreover, she could manage who participated.

“It was an experiment,” said Bonazzi, who expected to see just a few users and posts during the 2-day meeting. She was astonished to see more and more users logging onto the micro-blog as the meeting progressed. Many participants loaded pictures of themselves into the blog site and started swapping ideas and information as they listened and reacted to the speakers. The pictures helped attendees recognize one another during breaks, speeding the conversations about each other’s posts and creating social connections.

By the end of the meeting, more than 80 users had signed up for the micro-blog, with about 350 posts on the first day and more than 200 posts on the second day. Users also continued to post comments 2 days after the meeting ended. About a dozen people who could not attend in person signed up for the micro-blog to follow along, including a member of NHGRI’s advisory council.

Even the uninitiated got excited. “I love it,” said meeting participant and speaker Dr. Stephen Sherry, a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information who had never used social media tools before. “It’s the immediacy of the feedback that is valuable,” he said during a break. “I’m writing all my notes on the micro-blog.”

Other attendees agreed. “It’s cool because it’s in context [of the meeting],” said Dr. Deepak Singh, business development manager for Amazon Elastic Cloud Computing at Amazon Web Services.

Bonazzi observed that the ability to follow the micro-blog during the meeting had many advantages for her as meeting organizer, including being able to see key points of each talk posted by users in real time; users asking questions and having real-time conversations; the sharing of links to resources relevant to the meeting; and the ability to identify volunteers to write a white paper on how cloud computing might be used for analyzing large biological datasets.

While enthusiastic about the results, Bonazzi cautioned that the success of the micro-blog at the meeting may have been due to the audience being a bit more familiar with social media tools than most. “The downside of using the micro-blog is that it was a bit distracting, because there were so many responses,” she said. “Sometimes, I found the micro-blog was capturing my attention more than the talk, so it may actually take away from things a bit for attendees and at the expense of the speakers.”

She also advises that NIH staff considering such tools for their meetings think about the topic and content that will be discussed. This particular meeting did not introduce any unpublished research findings or protected patient data that could feasibly be cut and pasted by users of the micro-blog and emailed or posted on other web sites. In addition, the micro-blog was not publicly searchable on the web.

Bonazzi and other NHGRI staff plan continued experiments with social media tools at future meetings based on feedback from meeting attendees.

Some participants, however, already have made up their mind. “I think it was a great experience,” said attendee Francis Ouellette, associate director, Informatics and Bio-computing and principal investigator, Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. “I think something like that should become the standard for all NHGRI/NIH meetings and workshops!” NIHRecord Icon

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