Invited Symposium: Integrated Telematic Services and Communication Through Scientific IRC: Virtual User Communities of Biomedicine in UNInet


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Development and Utility of Biomedical Cooperative Work Systems on the Internet

Contact Person: Coma, Maria Jesus (mjcoma@bio.hgy.es)



The necessity of communication between colleagues and professionals within the Health Sciences as in other disciplines, finds in the Internet a very reliable instrument. This matter has impelled the UniNet Project: the University Network of Integrated Telematics Services for Virtual Users Communities (VUC) (Cunningham et al 1996, Redman et al, 1.997, Kajiya et al 1997).

The UniNet project was born at the end of 1996 in the Investigation's Unit of the General Hospital Yagüe of Burgos (Spain) under the auspices of the 'Burgos por la Investigación de la Salud' Foundation', in collaboration with other academic and research centers of the world (Coma del Corral y col. 1.997, 1.998).

Nature of UniNet

UniNet (http://bio.hgy.es/uninet) can be described as a Virtual City of Knowledge. The project is universal, thematic, and linguistically and geographically open to all professionals, scientists, and humanistic/cultural/artistic initiatives, grouped in VUC. UniNet already has numerous formal additions of Universities on both sides of the Atlantic collaborating in the project.

The project is based on voluntary, altruistic, uninterested cooperative work, from a few thousand scientists and professionals from 50 countries throughout the five continents.

UniNet Objectives

The objective is to supply Internet resources to each professional in every field or defined disciplines. The first risk to professionals using Internet is to spend time without real benefits. UniNet tries to make available the scientific resources of Internet, in a simple and reasonable manner, so they can be easily found by people without thorough knowledge in Computer Science, this way avoiding directionless navigation in the search of the information required. (Buhle 1996, Jadad and Gagliardi 1998).

Also, the frame of VUC promotes the development of professional relationships between colleagues in the universal scope, surpassing the divisions imposed by geographic, cultural or language barriers. (D'Alessandro and Galvin 1998)

The Communication in Internet

The information in Internet is made fundamentally through hypertext pages, i.e. webs. Nowadays we could say that Internet is the "Alexandria Library of the XX century". Also, Internet essentially makes possible the communication in two modalities. These are: indirect communication by sending and receiving messages in different ways (email, news, mailing lists, etc. ) and direct communication in real time by video-conference, audio-conference and text-conference. The first two are not even sufficiently accessible and developed for the home user in suitable technical conditions around the World. There are diverse modalities of text-conference (talk, icq, IRC, wintalk...). The most developed and used system at this moment is the IRC (Internet Relay Chat).

The IRC already has reached a maturity, and although probably it will disappear, it is not likely to do so soon. We think it has still a long life ahead, because it is the most versatile, powerful, cheap and easy tool for the individual user.

Internet Relay Chat

The IRC consists of realtime text exchange between two or more users in front of their computers. It produces a feeling of physical proximity, so the communication is like oral talk but written. Nevertheless, it is not limited and for that reason, it combines advantages of both means: the own uninhibition of the oral exchange with the option of keeping a copy of the written text.

In addition, the IRC facilitates the exchange of digital files, easily and immediately. In this way the chat can become rich with additional data, images, sounds, etc. Also someone can use it with the fundamental objective of exchanging files of scientific material and to control its transport.

Finally, it allows to introduce command programming, events, etc. when incorporating its own programming language.

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One of the Services of Uninet is a network of Scientific-IRC, which has been presented/displayed in numerous academic and institutional forums, leading through Internet at the Universities and Units of Investigation of Spain in the Technical Days of RedIRIS'1997 at Zaragoza (Coma et al. 1997, Tomás C. 1997).

The IRC of UniNet has exclusively scientific, educational and research characteristics and it is complemented with the transfer of image, sound, and other types of files which involves different varied applications such as learning languages or having clinical-pathological sessions of world-wide scope (http://bio.hgy.es/biomed).

Defining the differences

The IRC network of UniNet is very different from the conventional IRC networks dedicated to leisure and diverse playful activities by the following characteristics:

- The aim of the UniNet's Network in the communication of non-commercially based scientific and cultural matters.

- The support of the servers that in UniNet comes from university sources or similar institutions.

- User identification is a particular characteristic of UNINet and is what renders validity to text-conferencing as each user of UNINet can know who the speakers are.

- The channels or multi-user public conversation forums in UniNet are always thematic, that is, with specific contents on cultural, scientific, academic, or other type of contents. These channels are opened by request of the user who freely assumes the responsibility of its content always within the aims of UniNet. A bot is dedicated to avoid the creation of unregistered channels.

- The framework, which in UniNet is the virtual user community. The text-conference in these communities is another mean of universal communication.

How to access UniNet

In order to access UniNet it is necessary to have a computer connected to the Internet, with an IRC program and to access one of the network servers.

When initiating the connection, a welcome message will appear, help information and the means for personal identification in the network will be available.

The list of open conversation channels can be seen on the Web or by means of the command "/list" once connected to a server of the network. We have made software modifications in a bot in order to permit that channels only be opened by registered users.

Actual Development:

The network at the moment has ten servers with uni-net.org domain. They are located in Argentina, Colombia, Deuschland, Spain and USA. The servers list can be found in http://bio.hgy.es/uninet/servers which is continually updated. There are 10 IRC-operators to help people who need assistance. The IRC-operators also watch the contents and order in the network, helped by robots, who inform continuously about its status.

In UniNet we currently speak Portuguese, English, French, German, occasionally exotics languages like Mandarin (Chinese), or Maori (New Zealand/Aotearoa), but the Spanish language predominates widely on the network. There is no discrimination towards anyone because of their language.

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At the present time, UniNet has these VUC in the fields of Biomedical Sciences, listed in alphabetical order: Anesthesia, Biology, General Biomedicine, Cardiology, Ecology, Emergency, Intensive Care Unit, Nephrology, Neurology, Dentistry, Orthopedics, Pharmacy, Pathology, Psychology, Science, Senology and Mammary Pathology and General Surgery.

The support of the servers in UniNet is provided by university resources either partially or totally. Every community, has a Web site, FTP server, mailing list, database of web resources, etc. We are working on the development of other services such as databases, web-chat, unicast and multicast audio-conferences, news, Mbone, etc.

The status of every community is different according to its development and interests. In addition there are help support services, network administration channels, etc.

Most of these communities originate in Spain. The minorities are the following: Cardiology was born from the 'Federation Argentina de Cardiología' and a mailing list from Venezuela. Ecology was originated in the USA, by a master at the University of South Carolina. Science was conducted from Deutschland, and it is orientated towards the Physics Sciences.

Other communities are in preparation, after their formal request, such as 'HVER' from Virtual Hospital of Entre Rios, in Argentina. The School of Biochemists of Entre Rios, the Argentine Federation of Societies of ORL, and 'alpha' corresponding to the Network Integration ALPHA, sponsored by the European Community.


There are different courses, meetings, conferences and discussions organized regularly. Access on the net is also available of the net 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year for spontaneous meetings. The list of such activities is not possible to explain here because it exceeds the space available.

The most relevant activities until now consist of the development of remote Courses for a Program of Doctorate (http://bio.hgy.es/mama), and real time transmissions of several meetings, such as the XVII Congress of the "Federation Argentina of Cardiology (http://www.fac.com.ar/congreso) celebrated at Rosario (Argentina), the discussion of cases presented to the "II Hispano-American Virtual Congress of Pathology" (http://www.conganat.org) and the II Oncologic Meeting at San Sebastian (Spain). They are relevant to specialized courses and sessions taught through several countries by the respective authorities in the matter (http://bio.hgy.es/ec). The celebration of the First Virtual Congress of Neurology (http://bio.hgy.es/neurocon) and other International Virtual Congress is prepared in UniNet.

The direct communication by IRC demonstrates to be a useful tool to facilitate the meeting between participants, raising discussions of the presented scientific communications. This was conducted already in other different scientific meetings organized in others countries (Datz et, 1.998. Edgecumbe 1997, Hardy et al 1997) but outside networks. UniNet is established as a multidisciplinary group forum.

The celebration in real time of clinical-morphologic sessions of world-wide scope is simple. The images are placed in advance on a web of any server in the network. In a private channel the individuals present comment on the details of the case, the radiological, morphological images, etc. The users arrange two applications on their screen: the usual browser (Netscape, Opera, Mosaic, Explorer, etc) and a program IRC client. They can follow a similar procedure for private and spontaneous consultations, visualizing in a graphic program the digitized morphologic images, that are sent from one to another instantaneously throughout the IRC program.

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The activities of UniNet are not new in themselves because they have been proved already successful in different ways (Datz et al. 1996, Russell et al. 1997, Wray and Lai-Goldman M. 1995, Palmer et al. 1997).

The UniNet contribution is the development of a system with the integration of telematic resources in a stable Network, specially designed for Science, with a universal vocation, of the thematic, language and geographic point of view. This initiative is free of institutional or commercial beings, and it is nourished by voluntary, sacrificed and enthusiastic work of all its members.

The following presentations aim to give a perspective of our work in the network.

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Buhle EL Jr. Medicine and the Internet. What can I learn from the Internet? J Fla Med Assoc 1996; 83: 624-7.

María Jesús Coma, Marc Hawa. IRIS-IRC Workgroup. Scientific-IRC proposal: RedUNI. RedIRIS Technical Conferences. Zaragoza, Spain, 18 November 1997

Coma del Corral MJ, Martín Alganza A, Hawa Attourah M. 'La comunicación en directo en Internet'. UniNet: La Red Universitaria de Servicios Telemáticos Integrados. Rev Neurol 1998; 26:992-5

Coma del Corral MJ, Martín Alganza A, Hawa Attourah M. Integración de Recursos Telemáticos: UniNet y la Comunicación en directo en Internet. II Congreso Virtual hispanoamericano de Anatomía Patológica. In http://www.conganat.org/iicongreso/conf/022/index.html (12/06/98)

Cunningham T, Bartlett K. Integrated telematic support for paediat-rics: A practical model. J Telemed Telecare 1996; 2 (Suppl 1): 50-4.

D'Alessandro MP, Galvin JR. SPR on-line: Creating, maintaining and distributing a virtual professional society on the Internet. Radiograph-ics 1998; 18: 189-94.

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Datz et al First Internet-Extended Bioinformatics Conference, 1.998, 22

Edgecumbe J. Value-adding information: Virtual conferencing, a tele-communication pathway to the future. Nurs Adm Q 1997; 21: 61-7.

Hardy BJ, Doughty SW, Parretti MF, Tennison J, Wilson Y. Internet conferences in glycobiology. Glycobiology 1997; 7: IX-XII.

Jadad AR, Gagliardi A. Rating health information on the Internet: Navigating to knowledge or to Babel? JAMA 1998; 279: 611-4.

Kajiya Y, Fujiyoshi F, Ichinari N, Nakajo M, Muranaga F, Kumamoto Y. Construction of an MRI reporting system using the Internet. Nip-pon Igaku Hoshasen Gakkai Zasshi 1997; 57: 353-5.

Palmer TE, Cumpston PH, Ruskin K, Jones RD. WCALive: Broad-casting a major medical conference on the Internet. Int J Clin Monit Comput 1997; 14: 209-16.

Redman PM, Kelly JA, Albright ED, Anderson PF, Mulder C, Schnell EH. Common ground: The HealthWeb project as a model for Internet collaboration. Bull Med Libr Assoc 1997; 85: 325-30.

Russell EJ, et al. Are you 'IRC-ed'? A guide to chat sessions and con-versing on-line. Adv Nurse Pract 1997; 5: 61-2.

Tomás C. Grupos de Trabajo en RedIRIS y su entorno internacional. Bol de la Red Nacional de I+D. RedIRIS 1997; 41-2: 28-36.

Wray BE, Lai-Goldman M. The design and use of a computer-based digital image acquisition, management and communications system for conferencing in pathology. Arch Anat Cytol Pathol 1995; 43: 2

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Coma del Corral, M.J.; Martin-Alganza, A.; Hawa Attourah, M.; (1998). Development and Utility of Biomedical Cooperative Work Systems on the Internet. Presented at INABIS '98 - 5th Internet World Congress on Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University, Canada, Dec 7-16th. Invited Symposium. Available at URL http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98/coma/coma_del_corral0209/index.html
© 1998 Author(s) Hold Copyright