Communicating and collaborating in iGEM - The HumHub Report

As our team started collaborating with the Stockholm team, their team had had some communication issues and discussions about the communication platform that they should use. Little did they know, our team struggled with the exact same issues in the beginning of our project. Stockholm was quick to act, and before we knew it they had put up a platform called HumHub. Our teams became some of the very first users of this new collaboration platform. As our project came close to the end, we wrote a report on how we used this platform and what we felt were the pros and cons, while looking back to our teams’ communication situations in the beginning. This is the HumHub Report, a result of the collaboration between Aalto-Helsinki and Stockholm.

In the beginning there was social media

In team Stockholm, in a meeting before lab work had started, the question of communication via Facebook was raised. Facebook was their team’s main means of communication and a lot of important information regarding iGEM was mixed up with more typical Facebook material. This situation was not considered optimal. The communication on Facebook was spread out over different groups and chats; a group for our whole team, events, individual chat groups for each sub team and other collaborations, etc.

Why social media may not be optimal for internal communication

Several members expressed their will not to use Facebook for various reasons, and along with personal reasons that many team members expressed, the fact that Facebook lacks key functions for streamlined collaboration and possibilities to customize. Discussions regarding other means of communication started and the idea of the Hub arose as a common place for teams to discuss and collaborate both within the team and with other teams.

In Aalto-Helsinki, the team from last year had managed to continue a sponsorship to use Flowdock communication platform in 2015. They had started with it in 2014 and found it a good way to keep on track about the project. It doesn’t have similar problems as Facebook: as all of the team members were new to Flowdock, there was no extra clutter: everything that happened on Flowdock, had to do with the project. Emails and Tweets could also be forwarded to different subforums called “flows” to keep on track with other platforms as well. Some problems did however rise: as Flowdock was new to everyone in the team, it took some time to get used to checking it on a regular basis as well as organizing the information. You can create separate flows on Flowdock to discuss different things and tag people as well as discussion topics, but conversations have a tendency to get lost when many ongoing topics are discussed at the same time. For this reason, some of the team members tried to initiate the use of Facebook instead of Flowdock, but as the team was afraid of the same issues that Stockholm had run into, Aalto-Helsinki stuck with Flowdock. Another problem with Flowdock was that even though Aalto-Helsinki could use it for free, there was no way all iGEM teams could get Flowdock for free. For this reason, it is by no means a platform to collaborate with other teams, and the use of an additional communication platform for this purpose is inevitable.

Then there was the Hub

Following the discussions within Team Stockholm, a network was set up by Hugi using the open source

Click the picture to take a look at the Hub!

Tools matter

An example of how the Hub can be customized is how we integrated the ’Team seeker’ and ’Biobrick seeker’, made by Aalto-Helsinki 2014, into the Hub. They can now be used directly within the Hub. This allows users to search for other teams or Biobricks within the same working environment.

Aalto-Helsinki 2014's Team Seeker can be accessed directly from the Hub.

The ability to customize the Hub according to the need of iGEM teams could be taken further by letting anyone design plugins, such as Helsinki’s seekers, to be integrated. As the whole system is open source, the whole system could be offered for users to modify completely and set up their own Hub for example to test new plugins or functions. These could later on be integrated in the main Hub.

Another idea that was discussed was a more readily available overview not only over all teams, but also with a short summary of what each team is aiming for. This would both make it easier to gain insight of other projects and also simplify the process of finding potential collaboration partners.

Some other people's opinion

We assumed that the communication problems weren’t only issues in Stockholm and Aalto-Helsinki, but to get more information about the communication platforms and collaborating practices within iGEM teams, Aalto-Helsinki launched a team questionnaire.

The questionnaire consisted of multiple choice questions and aimed to gather information about the different platforms teams used to communicate with other teams and also how teams find each other to start collaborations. By August 5th 23 teams had replied to the questionnaire. Of these only one team felt there was no need for a better collaboration platform. This team used Facebook and email to stay in touch with their collaborating partners. 7 other teams also said they use Facebook and email (and Facebook and email only) to collaborate, but hoped for a better platform. This led us to believe that the wish for a new platform was not only due to the clutter of different platforms. Nearly half (11) of the respondents used more than two platforms, and we thought that they might be having some trouble juggling between the platforms. 17 of our respondents used social media to find the collaborating teams and 19 teams use social media as their collaboration platform (the only or among others).

We predict that this will make collaborating with e.g. Chinese teams very difficult, since they do not have access to Facebook, and instead use their own social media platforms. Facebook is also less common all around Asia than in Western countries. This disrupts the whole point of collaborating, as it is difficult to find teams around the world. From the survey respondees 6 teams did not collaborate, but 5 of these had looked for collaborators. All of these teams also replied that they had had problems contacting other teams. This is probably the main reason why they aren’t collaborating with anyone, but it might also be that they haven’t been able to find but a few interesting teams who unfortunately haven’t replied.

The Promise of HumHub

The Hub holds promise to solving many of the problems pointed out earlier. As the Hub could be used for iGEM communication alone, there would be no unnecessary distractions. It however works quite similarly as e.g. Facebook, and most team members would find it easy to use as they are already used to the way Facebook is set up. It would also remove the necessity of multiple platforms for intra- and interteam communication as is the case with e.g. Aalto-Helsinki at the moment. It would also help the problem of communicating with teams in countries where there may not be access to Facebook, or where Facebook may not be popular. If HumHub would be spread out through the headquarters, teams would be encouraged to use it and the communication between teams would likely be much easier.

Obviously it’s a question of getting used to things. A new platform doesn’t solve the problem that team members need to get used to checking a new place for information when they start with an iGEM project. But if HumHub became the norm of communication within iGEM, it’d be adopted by new teams fast and with little effort and it could also function as a means to find other teams to work with. Contacting others may also become more simple as teams would have less communication streams from different platforms coming in. If everything was focused on one platform, noticing new messages and replying to them may be more likely than staying on lookout for invitations to collaborate coming through e.g. Facebook, Twitter and email.