Reflections on ASHG 2010

As conferences go, the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) annual meeting is a pretty big deal. Anyone who’s anyone in human genetics is there, and if you want to be someone you better be there, too. And it’s big — this year’s meeting saw more than 6,000 attendees spread throughout a gigantic convention center that spanned four square blocks in the heart of Washington, D.C. Academics, publishers, clinicians, policy wonks, and industry reps staked out their territory among an endless sea of posters, eye-popping demo booths, and cavernous session halls. The international meeting for bioinformatics that I’ve gone to the past seemed quaint by comparison.

At bioinformatics conferences, the common theme is computational methods, applied to a wide variety of topics. At a conference like ASHG, the common theme is human genetics, probed and interpreted with a variety of methods. But even the topic is breathtakingly broad. Sessions covered complex disease, non-coding RNAs, methylation, ethical/social/legal/education issues surrounding genomic research and genetic testing, mouse models, high-throughput sequencing, population and evolutionary genetics, pharmacogenetics, cilia, computational methods, and Mendelian disorders, to name just a few.

I made my first visit to ASHG this year as part of a small contingent from 23andMe*, a direct-to-consumer genomics company. Although I missed a good portion of the conference due to my schedule, some of my colleagues took notes on sessions that I missed, and ample coverage of many of the sessions could be had by following the Twitter hashtag #ashg2010. The following summaries and reflections represent a composite of tweets, other people’s notes, and my personal notes and impressions.
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Taking conference reporting to a new level

ismb2008Who would have thought a year ago that we’d see an article in a major scientific journal about and inspired by microblogging? But indeed, PLoS Computational Biology published yesterday our report on the ISMB 2008 conference:

Saunders N, Beltrão P, Jensen L, Jurczak D, Krause R, et al. (2009) Microblogging the ISMB: A New Approach to Conference Reporting. PLoS Comput Biol 5(1): e1000263. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000263

What is FriendFeed?

FriendFeed is a web service for aggregating feeds from numerous other web services and for posting links and messages. Discussions often start up around these posts as people comment on them, providing a convenient, topic-based and searchable archive of conversations. You can post to specific “rooms”, such as we’ve started doing for meetings and (un)conferences (e.g. BioBarCamp, ScienceOnline ’09, PSB 2009) and for particular topic areas (e.g. The Life Scientists, Python for Bioinformatics). Cameron Neylon has written a longer primer on FriendFeed for scientists and Pawel Szczęsny also reflects on how scientists might interact with this tool.

The effort came out of a group of bloggers and Web 2.0 enthusiasts who contributed to the ISMB 2008 room on FriendFeed – many of whom had never before met in person. ISMB 2008 in Toronto seemed to be the first time scientists used FriendFeed to capture the content and activities associated with a conference. Once it happened, it became glaringly obvious how useful and convenient it was to use FF for this purpose.

The room became a place for people to record notes on the talks, which allowed people to attend sessions without completely missing out on all the others (an annoying problem at these larger conferences with multiple sessions going on simultaneously). People could also augment the talk notes with links to relevant papers or web resources, ask and answer questions, and provide different perspectives when several people were covering the same talk. For those unable to attend the conference, the FF room provided a way to learn about what was happening and interact through online discussion.

As the conference went on, it became clear that this online room represented perhaps the most comprehensive set of conference notes any of us had ever encountered, and would not have been possible without the collaborative effort. When Roland heard that the conference organizers were looking for reporters, he made the obvious connection and galvanized a group of us to gather our collection of notes into a summary document. After an initial brainstorming session at the conference, we went back to our separate corners of the globe and worked on the project virtually through Google Docs. Neil led the effort to see the document through to fruition, communicating with the ISMB organizers and the editors at PLoS Computational Biology.

So what might this mean for the future of conference reporting? We are already behind the times a bit as blogging is already a common component of news reporting in other areas, notably politics and sports. Twitter is becoming a popular outlet for real-time citizen reporting, especially in disaster events such as the Mumbai attacks (though not without some controversy). In our case, FriendFeed seemed to offer a useful compromise between the flexibility and speed of Twitter and the organization and discussion possible on blogs, making it a good way to gather “raw data” for conference reports.

After the successful alpha demonstration of the ISMB 2008 room, I find it likely that any conference with an attendee familiar with these FriendFeed rooms will start their own. But is this always a good idea? Conference organizers might not always view microblogging in a favorable light given the private nature of many conferences in the biomedical sciences – for example, the Cold Spring Harbor meetings have an explicit policy against recording the talks or events. Given how easy (and natural) it is now to share content with others, though, each conference ideally should have an explicit policy regarding social media-based coverage. In reality I’m pretty sure that very few do, so it may be prudent to proceed with caution: check with the organizers, encourage them to set an open policy or at least have a policy, and show them examples. Hopefully, with the help of this article in PLoS, they will be easily convinced that microblogging does indeed take conference reporting to a new – and desirable – level.