Google Sidewiki for Community Annotation

Might Google Sidewiki be the answer for scientific databases wishing to add community annotation features?

In the past, I’ve presented cautionary, real-world experiments in community annotation of genomic databases. They haven’t worked. Some mistook these tales of woe to mean that I’m against the idea of community based annotation (Combat). On the contrary, I see no other way for curated scientific resources to keep up with the immense flood of data we now face. We must leverage the scientific community to make sense of data stored in federated databases. Besides, I’m a firm believer in community intelligence and the emergent properties of data that may not be readily apparent from the perspective of most bench scientists.

Naturally I was intrigued by the announcement today of Google Sidewiki (announcement | home page). Google Sidewiki is a Google Toolbar extension for Firefox, IE, and soon Google Chrome.

With Google Sidewiki installed, users see a wiki-like page in the sidebar for sites that have it enabled. There, they can leave comments and read those left by others. Google monitors posts, placing those that it deems the most relevant at the top of the sidwewiki.

Sidewiki will never be a full-featured annotation tool. It’s much more of a commenting system. But that simple functionality is an important thing missing from most scientific databases.

So why am I so jazzed about this?

1. Ease of use

Users of biological databases aren’t really inclined to edit data online. They have better things to do, like experiments. Sidewiki keeps the activation energy low, encouraging participation.

2. Limited scope

Hand-in-hand with the ease of use is the limited scope of Sidewiki. It’s simple and lightweight.

3. Ease of implementation

For already overworked developers and managers of scientific databases, there’s nothing to install. What could be easier?

Possible uses

Sidewiki could be extremely useful as a quick way for scientists to communicate with maintainers of the resource. See a problem with an annotation? No problem, just make note of it in the wiki. Curators can monitor domain-specific posts for annotations that need updating. See a bug or have a feature request? Make note of it right in the wiki.

I’ll be posting our our use of it shortly at one of the databases I manage.

You might want to follow Google SideWiki on Twitter to stay abreast.

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