Hackers, start your computers

Hackers, start your computers

UF holds first-ever VIVO Hackathon

By Claire Baralt

The VIVO Hackathon was held in May./Photo by Maria Belen Farias

What happens when you put 15 Semantic Web pioneers in a technologically advanced collaboration space for four days, and leave them entirely to their own devices?

“It’s a little like an old-fashioned barn raising,” said Michael Conlon, Ph.D., principal investigator on a multi-institutional, $12.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a national network of scientists using a Semantic Web application known as VIVO. “The community gets together to share expertise and create something.”

Open-source software originally developed at Cornell University, VIVO uses Semantic Web technology to aggregate information about researchers from multiple sources. VIVO’s underlying information structure then enables that data to be displayed, searched, edited and interlinked in a way that expedites searching and discovery. Since the 2009 NIH grant, VIVO has attracted approximately 30 partner universities in the U.S. and abroad. There have been more than 8,000 downloads of the program.

With VIVO gaining traction around the globe, the project’s leaders decided to establish an annual hackathon to spark ideas and collaborations that can enhance VIVO’s ongoing implementation. On May 4, Semantic Web developers descended on Gainesville from places as far-flung as Belgium, Indiana, Ireland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and the United Kingdom. They joined Nicholas Skaggs and Stephen Williams, two developers at UF, for the invitation-only event.

Surrounded by the high-tech amenities of the Collaboration Center at the UF Health Science Center Libraries, the “hackers” explored common interests. They were free to pursue whatever projects interested them.

The result? A heady four days that produced, among other outcomes, three advances with great promise for VIVO: a new capability to contextualize data for search engines, likely to be released for VIVO in the fall; a first step toward enabling concept mapping for VIVO’s search applications; and a working model of software that automates the process of identifying and linking publication co-authors across institutions.

Amplifying the significance of the latter breakthrough, Conlon said: “It’s one of the holy grails of this work. It was literally startling to me when they presented it.”

Prior to the hackathon, linking co-authors from different institutions was a longer-term goal for VIVO, as experience to date suggested that individual VIVO users would have to manually create links with their collaborators. With software that automates this process using shared PubMed IDs, VIVO would be able to map who is connected across organizations, helping to break down institutional silos — a key barrier to nationwide collaboration. The next step will be for VIVO’s community of developers to figure out how to implement the software model on a national scale and link it across institutional VIVO systems.

At UF, VIVO profiles exist for all faculty and staff and are available for self-editing. Profiles include an individual’s UF position and contact information, PubMed publications and investigator status as reported by the UF Division of Sponsored Research. But profiles can be expanded to include much more, including research interests, keywords and presentations.

The UF Libraries manage VIVO as an online resource for the UF research community. Librarians are available to answer questions about how to use the system.