A Case of Life-Saving Collaboration

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Article ImageFounded in 2005, the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) is a research organization dedicated to studying and combating the threat of wheat rust, a parasitic fungus threatening wheat crops in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Based out of Cornell fUniversity, BGRI is an umbrella organization for dozens of smaller projects and individual organizations spread out across the globe, as well as hundreds of researchers in fields as diverse as genetics, agriculture, and pathology. The organization is also partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

www.globalrust.org

BUSINESS CHALLENGE

BGRI’s mission hinges on its ability to share knowledge with participants scattered around the world. As an active research community, it needed a knowledge sharing solution that would let individual participants publish and update information independent of the larger organizational hierarchy, while still maintaining certain administrative standards. With its far-flung audience and dozens of individual projects, neither the free-wheeling flexibility of a public wiki nor a more traditional intranet could meet all the organization’s needs. And with mountains of research arriving in a mixture of text documents, images, presentations, and PDFs, it also needed a robust search solution.

VENDOR OF CHOICE: Traction Software’s TeamPage
Founded in 1996 by Greg Lloyd and Chris Nuzum, Traction Software is a developer of team-oriented collaboration and information management software. TeamPage, its flagship offering, is a browser-based collaboration platform with a focus on project management. The company’s customers include the U.K.’s National Health Service, the U.S. departments of Justice and Defense, and In-Q-Tel, a not-for-profit venture capital firm affiliated with the CIA that is also an investor in the company.

www.tractionsoftware.com


THE PROBLEM IN-DEPTH
Wheat rust is a virulent crop disease caused by a parasitic fungus that attacks cereal crops such as wheat, oats, rye, and barley. Spread by the wind, the fungus can rapidly devastate crops, leading to significantly reduced harvests and the potential for famine. The disease can also have global consequences, driving prices up worldwide by reducing the available supply of wheat from major growing regions. Wheat rust caused significant damage to crops in the U.S. in the early 1900s and 1950s, before the threat of the disease was greatly reduced thanks to rust-resistant strains of wheat developed by pioneering agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug.

In 1999, however, a new strain of the wheat rust-causing fungus was discovered by researchers in Uganda and was subsequently dubbed Ug99. Unlike previous strains of the fungus, modern wheat crops possessed little resistance to Ug99, which allowed it to spread rapidly across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In 2005, the Expert Panel on the Stem Rust Outbreak in Eastern Africa published a report that examined the threat of Ug99 and proposed several recommendations, including the creation of a global research initiative to examine and combat the problem.

Tasked with pulling together a disparate group of researchers and scientists spread out across the globe, the Global Rust Initiative—later renamed the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, after its late founder—quickly realized that one of its most significant challenges was managing and distributing the huge volumes of information required for effective study.

“One of the ideas behind the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative is that people need to be made aware of research that’s going on, and that has happened, very quickly,” says Jennifer Nelson, assistant director of Cornell’s Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project. “We needed to have a place that had a lot of published research and a place where people could put the most updated research, even when it hasn’t been published, and have it be recognized, accurate, and shared among the community.”

Because wheat rust spreads rapidly, the traditional peer-review and journal publication method used by most of the scientific community was far too slow to be effective. BGRI needed to ensure that a field researcher in Uganda could have access to the latest research of an agricultural scientist in Denmark without having to wait for it to pass through the review and publication process. What’s more, the organization wanted a place where the hundreds of scientists and researchers could network and collaborate on specific problems using the full resources of the international research community.

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