Building a social network for scientists is the web-portal of the African Climate Exchange project at the UoR Meteorology Department.  Afclix is a social networking site, where each member has a profile, can create collaborative projects with other members and interact with those members in a variety of different ways. Because of my strong background in meteorology, I was employed as a trainee web developer to build the site – and it’s been quite an experience.

Afclix wasn’t originally envisioned as a social networking site. The original brief was for a website that had an African feel and would provide information for NGO’s, scientists and policy-makers in Africa.

As we focussed in on what the site should achieve, however, it became clear that a social network was the right tool for the job. The leading scientist, Dr Cornforth, wanted to have a “Connection Space”, where scientists could share their contact details and upload their work – this developed into  member profiles and project pages. Dr Cornforth also wanted Afclix  to serve as a simple communication tool; something which is of course the very fabric of a social networking site.

After doing some research into the variety of different social networking software packages available, such as BuddyPress and Dolphin, it became clear very quickly that Elgg was the way to go. It has file upload facilities, blogging, bookmarking and fully-controllable access/privacy levels. As well as that it’s really easy to install, has a huge number of plugins written and supported by the Elgg community and is very customisation-friendly.

But building the site was really only the beginning. It sounds obvious, but a social networking site has no content until it has members. Couple that with the fact that people aren’t going to join an empty site and you have a potentially site-killing feedback. To avoid this we kept the site exclusive at first and only allowed a handful of people who were close to the project to join. Then, as the content slowly built, we slowly invited more and more people. During this careful roll-out period I tried many different ways to get future and current members to engage with Afclix. My top three tips are:

  1. Arrange face-to-face meetings with particularly important or gregarious members; give them a tour of the site and show them how easy it is to set up a profile.
  2. Request that prospective members who are based outside the University do not register themselves but to send you their photo and details so that you can set up their profile and  make the site look inhabited.
  3. Cleave questions and comments on people’s content as much as possible. On Afclix this means that an email gets sent to their inbox, encouraging them to return to the site.

We finally opened up Afclix to the browsing public in mid-January. Until it starts ticking over, then the team of scientist behind the project continue to drive content and members to the site by sending them sign-up emails, welcome messages and generally following step three above. Through everyone’s hard work, we are pleased to have a small core of members who are contributing and interacting regularly at the moment as well as a healthy number of returning visitors. There is still a lot of hard work to come, but if things continue to improve as they are doing then the Afclix will be a great resource for years to come.

Bethan Harris, Department of Meteorology

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