Unite: The Brain Institute's Web-based Collaboration Software

- Julie Kiefer
For scientists, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 was both a blessing and a curse. With the stroke of a pen, billions of dollars were freed up for scientific research. However researchers were suddenly faced with having less than two months to apply for ARRA-funded Challenge Grants.

“It was stressful,” said John White, Ph.D., professor of bioengineering and Brain Institute (BI) executive director, who co-authored a challenge grant proposal with Karen Wilcox, Ph.D., BI member and associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology. “We had very little time to put together a proposal we knew would face immense competition.”

Thanks to Unite the Brain Institute's online software system that streamlines collaboration and workflow White and Wilcox were quickly able to assemble a quality proposal. In October, they were awarded over $900,000 to develop new ways to assess epilepsy drugs, edging out over 19,000 other applicants. “Unite was a factor in our success,” said White.

Boosting productivity

What is Unite?

Unite Login Screen

Unite is a University of Utah product that resembles Google Docs or Yahoo Groups on steroids (for a full list of Unite features, click here). Unite users create workspaces where they can build and house files, and share them with specified users. A variety of tools are available to enhance collaboration, including wikis, document approval and versioning tools, task lists, and a powerful search engine. Because Unite is Web-based, it is accessible from any location with an internet connection, 24/7. Nevertheless, users can rest assured that measures are in place to secure proprietary information and intellectual property. These features make Unite ideal both for collaborative projects and day-to-day operations.

Amy Davis, Ph.D., who as the BI's associate director plays a key role in Unite administration, urges BI investigators to take advantage of what the system has to offer. “Unite is the cornerstone of the Brain Institute's infrastructure for collaborative research.”

Facilitates collaboration

When White and Wilcox decided to pursue the Challenge Grant, their first priority was to put everything that they and BI staff would need to prepare the application into a centralized Unite workspace, including web links to application instructions, e-mail discussions, budget files, data, graphics, and the proposal itself. It was a smart move. “Having an easily accessible, well-organized database resulted in less duplication of effort and wasted time,” said White. He added, “We had no last-minute surprises because Brain Institute staff could delegate work more effectively.”

What's more, White thinks the quality of the proposal benefited from the PIs having open access to one another's work-in-progress. “It meant that Karen and I could write more intelligently about each other's contribution.” These extra boosts from Unite may have pushed their proposal to the top.

Creates networks

Adopt Unite

Developed by the Brain Institute and University Information Technology, Unite is a secure, online system where users can build, store, search, and share information.

All University faculty and staff can access Unite. To request a Unite account for a student or an outside collaborator, email access@unite.utah.edu.

While private workspaces facilitate existing collaborations, “communities” open workspaces that center on specific topics instigate new ones. Scientists can browse and join communities that interest them. One such example is the BioDesign Community, where undergraduate and graduate bioengineering students, faculty, and clinicians gather to discuss and develop product prototypes designed to improve patient care. “We wanted to connect people,” said Paula Millington, Ph.D., who as director of Media Solutions at the U's Office of Information Technology (OIT) is the product manager for Unite. “If individuals would work together on a particular problem instead of in parallel, they may find they have all the resources they need to make a breakthrough.”

Streamlines workflow

Unite is arguably at its most utilitarian when managing everyday activities. Reid Robison, M.D., instructor of psychiatry, uses Unite like a personal hard drive where he stores everything from the most-current version of his biosketch to laboratory datasets. His research assistants can easily access protocols and drafts of manuscripts in his Unite folders. Other research labs use the system to schedule instrument use, create wikis of experimental methods, and blog about scientific literature. In addition, automated tools like persistent searches and e-mail alerts, sent when a workspace is updated, allow users to keep tabs on projects effortlessly. Perhaps most popular are the document versioning and approval tools; these features maintain all document versions in an easy-to-browse history, and ensure that only one user modifies a document at a time. “Unite has helped me significantly improve my productivity,” said Robison.

Builds group memory

If groups use Unite as their primary information base, then good ideas won't get lost. Jennifer Logan, Ph.D., a director at the U's Program in Personalized Health Care (PHC) knew it was important to use Unite to build PHC's information base since the program's inception. “I've been able to create a history and institutional knowledge from the start,” Logan said. This means more than just having ready access to important information. Members can orient themselves to a project by searching for content contributed by a particular investigator or annotated with a particular tag. They can also mine collective group knowledge for new ideas. “By searching archived email discussions, we've been able to turn casual conversations into big projects,” said Logan. “Unite builds and taps into group memory. It prevents us from reinventing the wheel.”

Bridging the gap

Unite was created to fill a need. The Brain institute, which strives to make novel advances in brain research, joins scientists from 35 departments and four universities. Logistically, bridging departmental and physical boundaries is a tall order. When the Brain Institute was founded, Logan, the BI's former communications director, recognized that a new kind of infrastructure was needed to realize the Brain Institute's vision. “Researchers are traditionally siloed by their network servers, making it hard for them to share information,” said Logan. “The Brain Institute needed a tool to transcend the silos.”

In 2006, Logan and the BI initiated a partnership with OIT, who understood the gravity of the problem. “Scientists shouldn't have to waste their time looking for files or figuring out how best to share them,” said Millington. “We wanted to make it easy for scientists to do the things that only they can do.” The BI and OIT developed a customized solution based on Open Text (formerly Vignette) Collaboration software, and appropriately named it Unite. After a joint investment of four years and over $500,000, Unite is poised to take on new users.

A model to emulate

Unite made its online debut in July, 2007. Initially, OIT and the BI recruited only a few dozen people to test the new system. As word of the system's versatility spread, requests for new accounts came streaming in. Within two years, the number of users shot up to over 2,000, the maximum allowed by the initial contract with the software developer. Early adopters hailed from across campus from the Brain Institute research community to the U's Office of Diversity. Tellingly, OIT itself, which arguably has superior knowledge of the latest software technologies, employs the system to manage routine administration and important projects alike. “The collaboration portal proved to be an invaluable tool as we recently worked through one of our highest priority projects, our new data center,” said Earl Lewis, senior project manager, OIT.

Unite shines as an example of how collaboration software can be used safely and effectively in a university setting. Acknowledging their pioneering work, Vignette invited Logan and Millington to present at their annual user meeting in 2008. Since then, other universities have contacted OIT to inquire about the software. “It's a testament to Paula's skill of being able to look ahead to the needs of students, faculty, and staff five years from now,” said Logan.

Providing the competitive edge

This past August, the U's Office for the Vice President of Research gave Unite its vote of confidence. They pledged $100,000 and additional funds for the next four years to support upgrades and a much-needed licensing expansion to accommodate up to 10,000 users. “There's increasing emphasis by research funding agencies on collaborative, multi-disciplinary projects,” said Thomas Parks, Ph.D., vice president for research. “Our university can be more competitive by establishing better coordination among existing laboratories.”

“With institutional knowledge at their fingertips, could scientists write more grants? Would they be of higher quality? Could they write them in a shorter time frame?” postulated Millington. If true, a modest 1% increase in grants awarded to U researchers could translate to an additional $12 million coming into the university annually, based on FY 2008 figures. What's more, the relative ease of preparing multi-investigator grants using Unite could also raise the number of submitted center-type proposals, which often come with larger awards.

If White and Wilcox's success is any indication, Unite will pay off big.

Last Updated: 3/14/13