As of December 2014, MalariaWorld, the world's largest and only online scientific and social network for malaria professionals, is celebrating its 5th anniversary. It's been an adventure that we never imagined would become what it has become today. Many of you will not know the history of MalariaWorld, so here's a brief summary.
In 2001, whilst working on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, we used a telephone modem to collect email. You may recall how this worked. You had to dial in, and then there was a cracking noise and eventually a slow, slow, connection. At that time we were hooking up more and more computers to this modem, and I ended up collecting emails for more than twenty scientists and students every night. But the connection was slow and at times I spent many hours waiting for email to come in through this telephone line. Often it was disconnected and I had to dial in again and again. It was agonising and at times got me extremely frustrated.
One night, it must have been around 01.00 am I had enough of it. And decided to sit down and write a proposal to get the funding to buy a proper satellite dish and get us hooked up to the web and get mail almost instantly. I needed some 45 thousand dollars if I remember correctly. The proposal was sent to MIM-COM, which was then linked to the National Library of Medicine in Washington, USA. The proposal ended up in the hands of Ms. Julia Royall, and she was at that time involved in setting up satellite stations at malaria research centres across Africa. A few months later I was thrilled when I heard that we would get a dish.
The day came that the dish was installed and experts, one of them Mark Bennett, finally managed to display a webpage on a computer screen directly via the dish. The whole field station was partying that night and eventually, when we were all dancing in a circle, I put the old telephone modem in the middle of it. Then the first person stepped in and poored some beer on the modem. The next one came in and kicked it. Everyone was cheering. Eventually the modem ended up in a hundred pieces, such big was our anger towards that little piece of junk.
And now we were all connected. The world instantly changes dramatically. People had access to journal articles (through the HINARI system), could communicate much easier with colleagues around the world, saw funding opportunities online, and so on. What was an isolated science hub in rural Kenya suddenly became a mature research centre (at least communication wise!).
When Julia visited our field station she undertook a boat trip on Lake Victoria with Inga (whom you all know through MalariaWorld). The two of them discussed how important it would be to connect researchers better, and foremost to establish more south-south connections across Africa. Would it be possible to hook up all malaria researchers? Would we be able to pull off what Bill Gates was dreaming of in the late 1970s? To connect people from around the world to work together on solving problems such as malaria?
Inga started an email newsletter, and initially this had a membership of some 150 scientists. Every week she compiled a list of articles and sent it out to all. At that time it was called 'MIM-Com News'. But as the number of members was growing the realisation came that this was not truly connecting people but merely providing them with information - a one-way flow of news. But it kept growing. Five years later, in 2007, 2500 emails were in our database. Clearly there was demand for the 'MIM-Com News'. That year the funding from the Library of Medicine ran out and the whole thing almost ended.
Inga and myself decided to continue. No money, nothing. But we believed in the concept and persisted. We started with a new name 'MalariaWorld', a name that came up one evening when we were constantly talking about 'people in the malaria world...', or 'in the malaria world we do things this and that way'. Suddenly it clicked and the name 'MalariaWorld' was born.
In the summer of 2009 we started thinking about an online platform through which we would be able to really develop interactions between subscribers, show their location on a world map, invite contributions, interview people, etc. The platform was built by Serge Christiaans, who, still today, is the webmaster and with his team ensures that the platform is safe from hackers and that all runs smoothly.
In the fall of 2009 the platform was ready and we launched it at the MIM conference in Nairobi. By that time we had grown to nearly 3500 members. After that things went fast, almost exponentially. More and more people from around the world signed up, and I am incredibly proud that today, 11 December 2015, we have 8539 subscribers from at least 140 countries! This is a massive growth which directly underpins that there is a need for a platform like this. Every person that signs up is checked to see if he/she is indeed working on malaria, a task that Monika Bongers voluntarily has been doing for ages. Thus, our database is up to date, we verify bounces and actively look up people, and we know that all our addresses are valid.
Estimates say that there are about 10 thousand professionals in the field of malaria. If that is the case, than this means that 85% of the global malaria community is a member of MalariaWorld. Woow.
Also in 2009 we started working with staff based in Kenya. Through the office of Stella Chege, Patrick Sampao and Kabogo Ndegwa have been compiling all the articles in the weekly newsletter you receive by email on Fridays. For 5 years this team has done an absolutely fantastic job, and we are so proud to be working with them! Asante sana!
In 2010, one late evening, I read an article about Open Access publishing, and was astonished to read how expensive it is for authors to publish their work in Open Access journals. I drew another line - enough is enough, and decided there and then (in our attic) to start the MalariaWorld Journal, our own Open Access Journal where you don't pay to read but also don't pay to publish - we call it Open Access 2.0. And there we are, already in the journal's 5th volume, with a steady flow of manuscripts coming in. We managed to get a grant from the Dutch Scientific Organisation to cover the costs of publishing the first 90 articles. We firmly believe in this model - you have worked so hard on your research that you should not have to pay to get it published! The thousands of dollars that institutes or universities pay publishers to publish in Open Access journals should be used for your research and not for profit-making publishers...
So there we are - 5 years online. Do we have more plans? Oh boy, we do!
We would like to get a lot more video to accompany published articles. Interview authors so that they tell you about their work besides the publication. Put a face with the author and let them explain what their contribution is. Also we would like to set up 'BBC Hard Talk'-like interviews with key people in the malaria world. And really go in-depth and get their perspectives on how we should move towards a malaria-free world.
We would like to set up a jobs database, would like to optimise our search engine, and let me share our biggest dream here also: We would like to set up a database with every scientific article on malaria that was ever published, since Ross' discovery in Secunderabad on 20 August 1897. Imagine if all the articles, books, reports, and grey papers that were ever published on malaria would be available in our database - a database that could be mined by 85% of the global malaria communtiy! Hard work? Definitely. Impossible? Not at all: we can do this.
We would also like to set up 'organisation pages', where individual organisation, profit or non-profit, can describe what they do regarding malaria, who the people are that work there, what opportunities they have and are looking for, and how you can interact with them. Imagine this.
But here's the but. This all requires funding. Not huge amounts but still. The problem we face is simple. These days funding mostly goes to large consortia; groups working together, often from several countries. Our problem is that we are a small team (which nevertheless serves the whole world, well, most of it) and that funding mechanisms for the kind of service we provide just aren't around.
We can tell donors that we have more than 3500 unique visitors every week. We can show them the platform and the very positive feedback we receive from all corners of the world (most often from remote places). We can show them the MalariaWorld Journal and how this is growing. We can show them the contributions of columnists, some of which have had a really big impact, and so on.
In order to move forward and do what we believe will make the platform even better, we need funding. We have explored the option of letting you all pay a small amount, but risk losing those that simply can't afford this or don't have the means even to transfer money. Those are precisely the people we set up the platform for in the first place and we can and will not let them down!
Enough about our funding issues, it's time to celebrate! Thank you, thank you all for being such loyal subscribers that use our platform weekly. Thank you for your contributions, blogs, comments, and interactions with other subscribers. This is what we feel is necessary and why we exist - to see information sharing as important as the research itself.
Remember: You are what you know.
I don't know where we will be five years from now. Hopefully we will have enough funding by then to organise a get-together somewhere and celebrate face-to-face!
On behalf of the entire MalariaWorld team we wish you a nice and pleasant end of 2014 and a productive, healthy, prosperous, and above all a malaria-free 2015!