By Nayiri Mullinix
SGCI Focus Week teaches best practices for building, operating, and sustaining science gateways.
If you’re conducting technically-advanced science or engineering research, there’s a good chance that you use or will need to use a science gateway. Whether you call it a gateway, hub, virtual research environment, or one of the many other terms used, a gateway is essentially a web-based, streamlined, user-friendly portal that provides access to advanced, often shared, resources for science, engineering, and beyond.
Creating new gateways is fraught with challenges
There are many gateways that are well-established and used frequently. But what are researchers, educators, or students to do if a gateway doesn’t exist for their particular line of work? In more and more cases, researchers and other academics are realizing that, sometimes, they’ve just got to build their own.
The idea might be there, the need might be clear, but how to proceed with making this a reality can be daunting since there’s so much to consider: everything from getting funding to building a platform and project management to impact measurement. Many quickly realize that developing, operating, and sustaining a gateway is not in their skill set. Let’s be honest; it’s not in most researchers’ skill sets.
Existing support for building and sustaining gateways
That’s where the Science Gateways Community Institute (SGCI) comes in. The SGCI is funded by NSF to offer—at no cost—resources, services, experts, and ideas for creating and sustaining gateways. The goal is to speed the development and application of more robust, less expensive, and more sustainable gateways by offering everything from custom, technical-development support to business planning and sustainability best practices.
There’s a whole slew of ways that people can engage with the SGCI, including Gateway Focus Week, a popular five-day intensive workshop that’s offered twice yearly at rotating locations across the US. Focus Week was carefully designed by a team of instructors with the challenges faced by an average gateway developer in mind, knowing that they are great at their science but probably have a few things to learn about business, sustainability, day-to-day operations, and communications.
When I think about the value of Focus Week, I can’t say enough. It’s what started this project and then everything changed for me. If the Social Media Macroscope someday becomes huge, its success can only be tied back to Focus Week.
Focus Week has drawn participants from a wide range of disciplines who want to learn how to develop, operate, and sustain a gateway. Participating teams from all phases of the gateway lifecycle step away from their day-to-day responsibilities to take a deep dive into their projects by learning about value propositions, identifying and understanding audiences, budgeting, funding models, usability, cybersecurity, marketing, and much more.
The SGCI has been offering Focus Week—originally known as Science Gateways Bootcamp—for three years, and the impact on its participants is increasingly evident. Dr. Joseph T. Yun, a participant at the very first Focus Week in April 2017, came in with only a loose idea of what he wanted to do with his work involving social media data. With each passing day of the workshop, he says that his idea was solidified and that he walked away from Focus Week knowing exactly what he wanted to do.
Reflecting on that moment, Yun, who is now moving into a new role as a research assistant professor of accounting at the University of Illinois (UI), says, “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I want to do this. I came in knowing very little about science gateways, but it was during Focus Week that I realized I can and I want to do this.’”
What exactly was this? It was his idea to develop a gateway called the Social Media Macroscope, which analyzes social-media data. As you can see, yes, he did do this! How?
The magic of pitch decks
The culminating activity of Focus Week is to devise and present a pitch deck, which draws all the lessons of the week together and outlines personalized goals to be tackled in the months following.
Yun says he has used this pitch deck over and over again, and that it has, over and over again, helped him to achieve his goals. He used it when he came back from Focus Week to pitch his idea for Social Media Macroscope to his boss, who saw a clear vision and idea which made it easy for him to say “yes” to funding the project. He then used it to ask for more funding and an increased FTE. Again, his boss said “yes.”
Within a year, the project was rolling and piqued the interest of NCSA and XSEDE, who, thanks to the pitch deck, saw the potential for Yun’s project to make a huge impact on scientific research in general. Yun didn’t stop there. He shared his pitch deck with the provost and chancellor at the University of Illinois who approved even more funding, and he plans to continue to use it as the project gains attention and grows.
The Social Media Macroscope now has about 500 users worldwide, and those users are spread out across more than 70 research institutions. It’s being used mostly by professors and graduate students who often represent a larger team of faculty working on a research agenda.
As the Social Media Macroscope has gained momentum, new doors have opened for Yun, such as the suggestion to start a company and gateway that focuses specifically on his area of data expertise in marketing and advertising. Yun started working on this new project a few months ago and already has his first client.
Additionally, Yun is beginning work at UI's accounting department this fall. Illinois has one of the top accounting departments in the world, and due to their desire to incorporate data science and technology innovation into their research, they are bringing Yun in even though he does not have an accounting background.
When asked where the Social Media Macroscope is headed, Yun says, “I’ll be using the pitch deck over and over again to bring more funding into this project and to make it sustainable so that it can continue to improve and grow.” He continues, “When I think about the value of Focus Week, I can’t say enough. It’s what started this project and then everything changed for me. If the Social Media Macroscope someday becomes huge, its success can only be tied back to Focus Week.”
If you have an idea of your own, or you’re a researcher who needs a gateway, or you’re a team who has a gateway and aren’t sure how to grow and achieve sustainability, the Gateway Focus Week could be for you. The icing on the cake is that, thanks to funding from NSF, the workshop is currently offered at no cost (participants only pay for lodging, travel, and a few meals).
The next session will be September 9-13, 2019, in Chicago, IL. Learn more and apply here by July 19. If you’re not quite ready to apply for this next session, sign up for SGCI’s newsletter to be the first to hear about 2020 dates.