Monday, April 13, 2009

The Human Infrastructure of Cyberinfrastructure (Lee et al., 2006)

This paper describes how the authors conducted an 18-month ethnographic study of a large-scale distributed biomedical cyberinfrastructure project. Based on this study the authors argue that 'human infrastructure' is shaped by traditional, as well as new, team and organizational structures. The authors suggest 'human infrastructure' as an alternative perspective to 'distributed teams' as a way of understanding distributed collaboration.

The authors use a focus on human infrastructure to describe the social conditions and activities that constitute the emergence of infrastructure. The idea is that recently there have been projects that try to promote the development of cyber-infrastucture, e.g. shared databases, IT to support multi-institutional collaboration; big efforts to create applications, software and tools to support big science. The human infrastructure consists of the programmers, researchers, developers and so forth who have experience in the difficulties of developing tools to operate in such complex environments.

This paper focuses on FBIRN (Functional Biomedical Informatics Research Network), a multi-institutional project with the goal of developing tools to make multi-site functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) studies a common research practice. The authors describe different social groups in FBIRN, including the importance of traditional organizations (e.g. hospitals and universities), and the lack of clarity on the part of individuals as to their degree of membership in particular virtual groupings (e.g. task forces and working groups). Individuals have a restricted view of the whole project, which the authors suggest may be advantageous since the complexity of the entire project is too great for any one individual to follow. Individuals also make extensive use of personal networks and networks arising from other related projects. Some examples of the human infrastructure perspective appear to be:
  • New Practices, Old Conventions: Creation of new clinical assessment tool from multiple existing previous ones
  • Experimentation and Negotiation: Over time FBIRN developed a new process for developing experiments
  • Sharing Data: both legal and ontological issues and the challenges of keeping everyone up to date on the development of shared standards
They describe the amorphous dynamic nature of the human infrastructure, and that the formation of BIRN is recursive. However I am not sure about the use of this term. They say:
"The infrastructure is used by people to negotiate work, and in response to these interactions, the shape of the infrastructure itself is continually negotiated and changed."
and cite an example of how a statistics working group was formed out of a calibration working group, and how the individuals in the statistics working group were operating independently until a re-organization by the working group chairs. However none of this suggests a recursive structure. A dynamic and reflective one certainly, but not recursive, but perhaps I am taking the term too literally.

The authors say that they are employing 'human infrastructure' as a lens to understand the work of FBIRN; a new way to understand organizational work, in contrast to traditional organizational structures, distributed teams or networks. However, even having read the paper twice I am a little unclear about what the 'human infrastructure' perspective is supposed to be. I guess I am unfamiliar with the existing literature of traditional organizational structures. Having read Wenger's Communities of Practice I tend to think of all human endeavours in this general fashion, i.e. there being a messy cludge of multiple types of networks and contexts. The authors argue that theirs is a departure from a picture of traditional, hierarchical organizations being replacced with dynamic, networked organizational forms, in that they see the story of FBIRN making sense by combing perspectives from traditional organizations, distributed teams and personal networks.

The authors make a few recommendations such as encouraging the embracement of fluid organizational structures, that different groups will require different sort of organizational and instrumental support. The problem with any recommendations is that there does not appear to be any assessment in the paper regarding the effectiveness of the FBIRN organisation. Early on the paper we are told that the project has:
"successfully developed de novo tools for multi-site functional MRI studies, for data collection, management, sharing, and analysis"
However, we only have the word of the authors of the paper that FBIRN's achievements should be viewed in a positive light. One might ask whether the same results could not have been achieved faster and more efficiently with other types of organizational structures? Personally I would much rather work in a fluid organizations, but I wonder what basis there is for arguing that it is necessarily better.

There is mention in the paper of how some individuals found the non-traditional organization challenging in so far as they couldn't hold collaborators accountable. Although there was suggestion of some alternative techniques being developed to address this issue nothing in the paper constitutes evidence that the particular organization of FBIRN is necessarily a good one. The authors are applying an ethnomethodological approach of attending physical and virtual meetings as observers, reading emails and conducting interviews. While this clearly allows large amounts of data to be gathered, and the study is ongoing, I am not sure what I can really say with much certainty having read the paper. My personal interest would be in what technologies were being used for collaboration, e.g. teleconferencing and virtual meeting software, wikis, email lists etc. Not that I don't want to focus on the human infrastructure, but I want to understand how the humans are using the different type of technology to serve the individual goals as they relate to their traditional organizational role, their personal networks and their other project affiliations.

Perhaps I am being too hard on an unfinished study that is as yet only a conference paper, but while it was very interesting to hear about how FBIRN operates, I have not taken away a clear understanding of what it means to focus on human infrastructure as opposed to distributed teams; which I think is the key perspective shift that the paper is advocating. I guess I would need to read literature on analysis of distributed teams to achieve a better understanding.

The success of projects of such a scale would appear to be very hard to assess. How does one know that the collaborations taking place are successful? Presumably interviewing all the participants and finding that they all agree that the collaboration is successful is one approach, but I would want some additional, perhaps more objective measure. Maybe there is no such measure. However in the absence of some measure of success or failure it seems difficult to argue that one perspective is necessarily better than another.

Thinking about my own interest in design patterns for virtual organizations, this paper makes me feel that perhaps I am focusing much too small. Is the group management interface in a wiki really going to have much impact on big distributed collaborations on things like FBIRN? The big socio-technical decisions would appear to be more at the level of what mailing lists to set up, which out of the box content management system to use (e.g. wikimedia or drupal) and how frequently to have face to face meetings etc.

[N.B. This paper has been cited by 21 according to google scholar at time of this posting.]

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