How to set up a post-grad research social community?

I go through periods of blogging drought. I get ideas of things to write about but there is either a heavy workload or a stimulus missing, which means I sometimes don’t blog for a few weeks. But then I see something, often another blog, which provides the stimulus.

In this case, it was a combination – Dennis’ post about the communities for American accountants and Microsoft Dynamics, and me being on holiday for a week with time to think.

The accountant’s site is described as a place where

Members can share resources, establish personalized research and teaching spaces, keep up with news, trends, and regulations, and take advantage of rich profile information to find colleagues and experts.

The story about professional social networks has personal relevance to me. My wife, a medical doctor and lecturer at the Witwatersrand University Medical School, is starting a new job in January as Graduate Research Facilitator for the medical faculty; the job is to assist and guide doctors doing post-grad research.

One of the issues she discussed with me was that she will be supporting over 100 doctors who are doing post-grad studies while working in about six different teaching hospitals that are located all over Johannesburg. The travel time between hospitals make it very difficult to get to each hospital enough times each week to spend time with the doctors.

Using the Internet is obviously one answer to the problem of distance communication; setting up a social network or wiki would be a way for doctors to raise and discuss issues, and provide some kind of library functionality. Given that this is a university, however, will mean that motivating for the technology, and then getting it set up, is going to take quite some time.

While I cannot help with moving the university’s IT organisation along, I started to wonder if there was a way I could set up a test social network site – as a feasibility study – and as a personal learning experience. The challenge is to find some appropriate open source software, and a really cheap means of hosting it.

Fortunately, the Gartner report on the hype cycle for social software provided me with a list of software to evaluate.

MediaWiki, Socialtext, Twiki and Mindtouch

A major factor in the software evaluation will be what level of programming skill is needed to develop and support a site. I have neither the time nor the inclination to spend too many hours learning some complex technology. (Am I being naive?)

Where to host the software is still unsolved, and given that the cloud services from Amazon, Google & Co aren’t available in SA, I’m stumped at the moment.

If nothing else, it could be an interesing academic exercise.

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