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A Wiki Wiki Chorus Line - 3/17/2009 -

The creative launch of ALA's new wiki-driven resource LabAutopedia is a great example of how one association's commitment to deliver meaningful content enriched its members' sense of community.

By Nan Hallock

(Editor's note: For a good laugh and a testament to the fact that no association publishing venture—no matter how technical—has to be boring, don't miss the LabAutopedia music video link toward the end of this article.)

FOR MEMBERS OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR LABORATORY AUTOMATION (ALA), timely access to technical information can be mission-critical. For 13 years, ALA has provided such access via channels familiar to most associations – a major annual conference and exhibition, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and a networking directory of members.

However, as the Internet became a desktop reality, new tools and opportunities emerged and ALA was eager to seize them. The newest addition to ALA's menu of online services is LabAutopedia, a wiki-driven real-time resource center dubbed "The ALA Knowledge Network.”

Better, Faster, Cheaper

While some ALA member scientists spend their time cloning bacteria, others screen thousands of compounds searching for hits that could lead to new drugs. Still others examine DNA evidence that sends criminals to jail, or study strains of flu viruses to prevent global epidemics, or assess levels of contaminants in petrochemicals. Regardless of their individual missions, one thing that ALA members have in common is an interest in conducting their research better, faster, and cheaper.

To assist them, LabAutopedia now provides a centralized, on-demand means for cataloging and exchanging technical information, ideas, and practical experiences. ALA members can quickly and easily access LabAutopedia's continually evolving and always up-to-date collection of white papers, terminology and definitions, standards, technical basics, best practices, recommended reading, organizational listings, videos, and other scientific information.

"In both strategic and practical terms, LabAutopedia fits nicely into ALA's existing complement of publishing programs,” says ALA Executive Director Greg Dummer. "It addresses day-to-day, bottom-line needs that are not directly served by the peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts that we publish in our journal (JALA, the Journal of the Association for Laboratory Automation); the association news about programs and events that we publish in our monthly e-newsletter; or the specialized communication forums and features built into the Association for Laboratory Automation website.”

Harnessing Wiki Technology

Wiki software is not new to ALA members, many of whom are technologists and others who use wikis on-the-job to collaborate with coworkers and contractors. The idea of harnessing wiki technology to benefit the association, however, was sparked by the tremendous growth, popularity, and success of Wikipedia. From lightbulb to launch, LabAutopedia required nine months, a $35,000 investment, and solid teamwork.

"ALA is fortunate to have a sturdy working relationship between its member scientists and professional team,” says Dummer. "Bringing LabAutopedia to life demanded creative energy from all corners of the staff – IT, marketing, administrative, and publishing – but project leadership came from the membership.”

Dr. Steve Hamilton of Sanitas Consulting (Boulder, Col.) and Dr. Mark Russo of Bristol-Myers Squibb (Princeton, NJ) stepped forward with the scientific vision, know-how, and personal passion to make the project not only a reality, but a roaring success. In its first week, LabAutopedia recorded more than 100,000 hits from 69 countries, and within two months, 90 in-depth, scientific articles had been posted.

Drs. Hamilton and Russo were compensated by ALA for their leadership and continue to receive stipends for serving as LabAutopedia's editors. Together, they are responsible for the organization, categorization, and cross-linking of content that isessential to the educational mission of the wiki.In addition, they solicit articles, write articles, edit invited submissions, verify content, post edited articles, and generally oversee the entire body of material.

LabAutopedia is powered by MediaWiki, the same open-source software engine that powers Wikipedia. Although this software is available for free, customization is key to ensure suitabilityand appeal for any given audience. ALA relied on its informatics contractor, Potomac Digitek, for this back-end support.

Potential for Commercial Complement

LabAutopedia features a combination of open articles, which are works-in-progress editable by users, and invited articles from industry experts that are editable only by original authors. Content is layered and hyperlinked to allow readers to drill down into material according to their own interests. Users are welcome and encouraged to provide comments, examples, and engage in discussion. Content development is driven by an aggressive editorial calendar in combination with organic growth.

Five gatekeepers including Hamilton and Russo review RSS feeds regularly to remove inappropriate content and prevent abuse. While technical articles from commercial entities are welcome and appropriately identified, LabAutopedia is not a marketing vehicle. Advertisements, product announcements, overt marketing and similar materials are not permitted within articles. For companies seeking visibility, logo placement in the sidebar is available for purchase. Sales are managed by the ALA administrative staff, and revenue helps offset program expenses. A commercial complement to LabAutopedia, titled The ALA LabAutomation MarketPlace (LAMP), is currently in development.

A Lavish Launch

LabAutopedia was launched with great fanfare at ALA's annual conference and exhibition, and was celebrated with an attention-getting, tongue-in-cheek music videothat sent attendees away whistling its "wiki wiki” chorus and wearing souvenir "wiki wiki” T-shirts. To attract and engage active users, the editors held a LabAutopedia Barnraising where they introduced content, features, and provided a step-by-step demonstration of how users can make edits and other contributions.

Going forward, ALA is measuring the success of LabAutopedia by its content growth and by employing Google Analytics for regular analysis of visits, page views, page visits, bounce rates, average time on site, new visits, traffic sources, map overlays (geographic origins), and other factors.

"From the beginning, the success of LabAutopedia was almost guaranteed,” says Dummer. "Its pertinence is spot-on for our members. They immediately recognized its value and embraced it, and its growing popularity is enriching an authentic sense of community for the association and its members.”

Don't missAssociation Media & Publishing'sfeature on how your association can break new ground with the latest publishing technologies, coming up in the May/June issue of Association Publishing magazine. Does your association currently have a video on YouTube? Send us the link, so wecan see what you are doing.

Nan Hallock is managing editor for the Journal of the Association for Laboratory Automation (JALA) in Manitowoc, Wisc.


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