Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to build a better portal at TeraGrid11

It's the first official day of Teragrid and we’re all pleased to be here - it's hard to fault a conference that welcomes you with a generous cooked breakfast and free Starbucks coffee!

This morning we heard from Nora Sabelli of SRI International, with a thought-provoking talk on how we prepare for the future of data and compute-driven modern science.

After the break, I joined the Training, Education and Outreach track in the 'Solitude' room. Fortunately, despite the name, I wasn't alone and the session had drawn together an impressively wide range of people - scientists, developers, outreach specialists and teachers, among others.

The session covered using portable apps to help lower the entry barrier to grids. Richard Knepper, of Indiana University, presented his imaginative investigation into the affiliation networks of Teragrid users, based on their social network use. Training projects have the widest network, and project leaders tend to be grouped together in disciplines, although a few seem to be involved in a huge number of projects (I think we all know a few people like that!)

Jeff Sale of the University of California San Diego, also gave us the benefit of his experience in building cyberlearning communities. In his time, he has created portals for teachers looking to base lessons on real data, for grid campus champions and for students.

He has used a range of commercial and open source solutions to construct the portals, including a mix of content management systems, learning management systems, such as Moodle and full blown grid portal toolkits - basically, they're all mash ups.

A veteran of developing community focused portals, Jeff let us into a few of the secrets that he's learnt over the years. First off, define your goals and your measures of success clearly from the outset - don't just stick a portal in at the end of a proposal because it sounds like a good idea.

Secondly, you need to have adequate funding - for both start up AND sustainability. Also, don't forget that if you build it they will not necessarily come! Setting up a portal as a way to nurture a community sometimes works, but sometimes it doesn't. You need to plan a strategy for outreach and bring the right people on board to do this. Developers are not always the best communicators of their work....

You need to know your community – their technical ability, their online social skills. Identify community leaders and the ‘supergeeks’ (or perhaps more kindly, beta testers) who will help you with the development. Don't experiment with the whole community, you’ll probably scare them away.

Get the technology right and use it appropriately. Younger communities, such as students, are ‘digital natives’, and many social networking plug ins are available for the already initiated. There are also several ‘out of the box’ solutions around such as Joomla, Mambo and Drupal, but you might need to hack around in the coding to get exactly what you want. Be creative, and learn some PHP and Flash. And last but not least, you should practice what you preach and use the technology yourself!

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