In the Cellinese Lab we investigate the evolution, systematics and biogeography of angiosperms (flowering plants). In addition, we are interested in semantic data integration and interoperability and are developing tools that serve the biodiversity and phyloinformatics communities (e.g., TOLKIN, BiSciCol and RegNum).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

TDWG 2011: my post-partum rant

Fresh out of TDWG 2011 I feel the urge to unleash the monster in me.  I think we had a great meeting overall, lots of new ideas, great symposia, good talks, bad presentations, the usual mix we get at any given meeting we go to but with the added bonus from across the pond.

I was heavily invested in the preparation of TDWG 2011.  I take full responsibility for everything that went well and (especially) bad.  I was indeed part of not so great decisions and in many cases I could have done or said something that I chose not to, and therefore I am not removing myself from any equation.  As part of the program committee, I learnt about the million of contraints (some of them ridiculous) that often enough prevent us from doing the right thing.

The Good: Lightening talks!  Having ADD that is indeed my favorite session of any meeting.  As I said it before, for me is just like watching commercials.  I can follow with excitement without losing focus.  Not to mention, some of these projects are so imaginative and inspiring.  However, the session was forced to be placed on Friday morning, last talks session of the meeting :-(  when many had already left or clearly overslept from the previous night's party. Obviously a bad choice and you would want to know why. Why the most creative session, populated by some of the youngest, brightest and most productive has to be relegated to last?
a) We had a high number of symposia and contributed papers and pretty much every submitted contribution was accepted.
b) The conflicts with people giving talks in symposia or sessions and also having to participate in parallel interest group meetings was *unbelievable*!!
c) To make b) worse, some people were there from Monday to Wednesday (or Thursday) and all of their activities had to run during those days only. Apparently, everyone had to be accommodated
d) The damn Wednesday excursion!! That really ticks me off, because of all meetings I go to (and I go to way too many) this is the only one where it is believed that people need a rest after 2 days of heavy labor.  Are you kidding me??!!  I'll drop d) now and pick it up later.

Given all of the above, the only available spot for the most exciting session was Friday morning. And if we look into this a little bit more carefully, we clearly prioritized the 'established' efforts vs the new and upcoming. Well, if you left TDWG early I want you to know you missed the best Gumbo!

The Bad: The week-long ordeal. Realistically, this meeting could have ended on Thursday, or even earlier if properly trimmed of some of the unnecessary fat (won't go into details). To make matters worse, we have excursions in the middle of the week apparently because:

e) People get tired after 2 days of meetings (well, perhaps of each other) and they need a distraction (which makes me think I am not the only one with ADD).
f) Excursions are conducive of ideas exchange and foster collaborations (I am convinced that evening excursions to the bar are far more productive that any trip on any river).

Excursions are fun, but they don't need to be mandatory and having them in the middle of the week force people to stay longer even if they do not have any interest in a quick break/vacation (I am here to work, please!). Excursions need to be arranged immediately before or after the meeting and let's have the days to ourselves to work, because that is what I am using my funds for.

Additionally, we still have to find the best balance between contributing papers and group meetings. It's hard, really hard, but these decisions need to be made by a group of people evaluating all options, and not just an appointed person. For example, why not to give space to talks who are 1) providing significant contribution to standards development or their implementation and/or 2) are risky, exciting and promise to impact the current landscape.

The Ugly: The last session in TDWG (aka 'TDWG panel'). Felt more like 'The Last Tango in Paris' but badly directed and with a more glooming ending. I am not too sure about the purpose of this session and don't actually recall how it was conceived.  With no clear goal or focus, as it always happens, people voice their opinions in the absence of any framework. So, it is like asking the floor, 'what do you think we need now?'  Oh, wait! That was exactly what we were asked! The answer is a classic, of course.  We all need money.  We all want money.  We can't operate without money.  And when TDWG had access to a big chunk of money, primarily as I understand it to fix the infrastructure.....I can't finish this sentence, because I truly don't know what happened. What I do know for sure is that we still don't have a viable infrastructure.

I am always surprised to hear people talking about national and international funding opportunities as if we were entitled to receive them. Yet, when I visit the TDWG home page and I click the 'about tdwg' link I see no reason why we should be entitled to anything.  I raised the issues about having a vision because I want to be told why it is better for me to be part of this community.  Why do I need to operate within and not outside.  Makes me think of NESCent, for example, and how it fosters not just collaboration but real, tangible growth. At a *VERY* different scale of course, TDWG could take a similar approach and become the place where young people want to go to be supported, mentored, join existing efforts, contribute and develop their potentials to become the driving force of TDWG 20XX. Yet, how many students do we see at TDWG? We couldn't even establish a student paper prize for lack of young bodies.

This is what I see:

a) a totally dysfunctional infrastructure, but maybe that's not even the core problem.
b) an Executive with exceptional individuals, best intentions, and impressive commitment (and I really mean this!!) but inefficient as a group and without a collective voice.
c) Lack of pure, simple imagination.

I certainly don't pretend to have all the answers, but these are a few ideas/observations:

a) Make investments, no matter how small these are, but make them!  We do have some funds (we don't care how much!). Identify those promising ideas that would clearly benefit from a direct injection from the proof of concept stage to full implementation.  For example, pick from the lightening talks list, choose a couple of exciting projects (I would have a hard time to pick!). They don't have to be big investments.  Support grad students to join an exciting team. Start small but write a story to tell.

b) Identify an impeding bottleneck (as if we didn't have enough around to choose) and launch a challenge a la Rod Page but with a better prize ;-)  Students often enough crave just for the opportunity to be part of an exciting team.  Offer them that opportunity! Foster their growth by bringing projects and students together. For example, develop a contest, offer a little cash and an opportunity for the best to work with, lets' say, the Apple Core or Geomancer teams!

c) Reference implementations are crucial. Limiting TDWG to those projects that only feature TDWG supported standards (that was unfortunately suggested!) would be foolish. Be inclusive and promote adoption by showing the community why it makes a difference.

d) Do we have a well documented set of use cases developed within TDWG that support the need for all these standards? How do we keep track of progress besides telling each other what have we been doing in the past 12 months? Most of all, how effectively do we communicate needs, progress, successful implementations to downstream consumers? How do we make them care? There is a clear disconnect between consumers and developers. Funding agencies are very sensitive to that connection. A potential solution would be for each task group to develop and document use cases (at least one!) to justify their existence, not only for our own sake, but for the community sake. Preliminary data and prototypes should be then used to seek external funds to support the goals of the group. In other words, no use cases, no task groups (aka let's cut some of the crap).

e) It's not just about TDWG seeking funding. What about the people who make up the TDWG community.  If we think about it, we are actually pretty damn well funded individually or by project, but it doesn't trickle down enough to the task groups per-se. Maybe, next time we write a proposal we should stress and rethink of TDWG as the venue where at least some of our activities and project development will take place.

f) Promote Open Source! The suggestion was made this year (not by me) to have one (only one!) session featuring only open source projects but that was flatly rejected.  Why?!

g) Mini-hackathon are fun and worth the investment, especially when students are involved. They can be small, not expensive, and have an easy target (as in doable in 2-3 days). Task groups should generate ideas based on well defined goals (remember those use cases?) and help supporting this activities as much as they can.

The point I am trying to make is that TDWG is an umbrella organization and it is true that ideally injection needs to come mainly from the community. However, I see a community-organization co-dependency here as in a vicious cycle.  The community would be more supportive if TDWG were more relevant, more significant, made a larger impact. It's about what we can do for each other. It's the 'help me to help you' approach that I think needs to be more emphasized. Small investments can go a long way and set a different stage, build incentives, plant ideas and foster their growth. I think we can do way better and we should just stop whining about lack of funds. We do have funds. Many projects that are relevant to TDWG are funded indeed (do I have to name you a list?). Let's just be more creative on how we use them. Let's rework on the core TDWG activities, clarify the focus of these interest and task groups. And let's hear TDWG's voice. I am listening.

I am a member of TDWG and stubborn enough to stay one.


  1. Hi Nico,

    Wasnt able to attend this years TDWG, or follow the twitter, so very glad to read your reflections. Having been involved in the committee for a number of years as a regional secretary I would suggest that most of what you write could have applied to any of those years. Partly because meetings can never be perfect and partly because TDWG has never had a tight or coherent focus.

    This is both its attraction and it's downfall - the community values TDWG as an uses exchange and a centre for standards development, but are all to busy to Devore enough time to make it really strong and incisive. Maybe (and this is not a new suggestion) TDWG has to have a few key positions funded full time so that there is a continuous development and a focal point around which the communities good will voluntary efforts can live.

    Thanks for putting your thoughts into the webosphere!

  2. like 'The Last Tango in Paris' ?

    I'm curious, was there sex, or murder, or both?

  3. "For example, develop a contest, offer a little cash and an opportunity for the best to work with, lets' say, the Apple Core or Geomancer teams!"

    Thanks for the mention, and yes, we would love to work with some students on this. :-) I agree with your post: TDWG has always be a platform for exciting projects, but they could do so much more to promote this.

  4. Amen to all the above! The momentum was tough to redirect.