As part of my Washington visit meeting in July’14, I also had the opportunity to meet with one of the great people that we have the pleasure to work with in the context of the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP).On July 8th, I arranged a visit to the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (JIFSAN), to meet in person the Lab Manager Janie Dubois. Janie is one of the people that volunteered to serve as a case study for the analysis that the Knowledge and Learning Systems WG of the GFSP is doing on food safety information related data. She bought me lunch at the restaurant of one of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) buildings next to JIFSAN, and then took me for a round of the JIFSAN facilities that are hosted at the University of Maryland‘s campus.
JIFSAN is a joint venture between the US FDA and the University of Maryland. It is located right next to the building of FDA that hosts the food safety experts, and was created some five years ago to be able to deliver high quality training on new regulations that FDA developed. Right now, it has about 15 people and a budget of about 2M USD annually. About 75% of its funding comes from an FDA grant that is being renewed every five years after an evaluation. The rest of their funding is coming from grants, training services etc.
Janie is responsible for the laboratory facilities of JIFSAN. This is a very expensive and up to date lab for various types of food safety testing (eg microbiological, chemistry, etc) and is able to deliver hands on training on the site. Its advantages, as explained by Janie to a non-expert like me, are:
- It has multiple instruments often provided for free from various manufacturers that want to promote their devices.
- It engages mostly external trainers that come from FDA and USDA, thus having a great reputation and most up-to-date information on new regulations from FDA.
- It provides the opportunity to University of Maryland students to do their practice/research project in an FDA-related environment (or directly in FDA next door) which gives them access to a pool of bright young minds.
Janie explained to me that their IT team is also very strong. This team is working both on internal projects (e.g. setting up some data repository system or an online training platform) and external ones (where someone comes and asks them to implement something within their area of expertise). From what I understood by Janie, this must be the team hiring most and growing more quickly in JIFSAN – which is an indicator of the importance of IT for the work of JIFSAN.
At some point, we started talking about Open Educational Resources (OER) on food safety, a topic very relevant both to our work and the GFSP interests. Janie said that she is currently carrying out a small OER survey and has identified and assessed several resources available. She pointed out that much of this material is outdated and not usable – sometimes even dangerous or inappropriate, if a regulation has changed. She collected everything in a Word document and had no thoughts (at the time of our meeting) to did not think of organising it in a digital collection/catalog. Of course I suggested that we populate this valuable information in the GFSP demonstrator – which seemed like an idea that she liked.
During the tour, Janie talked to me about all the international participants that they have in their lab training (from all around the world, mainly Asia, Latin America, now more Africa and China, but also other countries). She described that the training that they want to offer is both the experience that these people get while in JIFSAN, but also the network and support that they get when they go back home. She describes how the course material is typically distributed in CDs and DVDs (although she also tried cloud-hosting services like Dropbox), whereas follow up communication on new materials, publications, legislation is done via e-mail. She also described the big spreadsheet that she continuously adapts to be able to send emails to different subgroups of the participants on latest developments around their interests.
We talked a bit about whether online tools can help her organise and share better the course material. Also if their need to continuously revise and update part of the knowledge (e.g. on regulation updates) could be supported by an open and shared environment for collaborative editing like a Wiki platform. We briefly exchanged some ideas about how an online (not necessarily open) community system could help them facilitate the frequent communication – still maintaining a personal touch.
At the end of our meeting, we also talked a bit about their interest in delivering online courses. My first impression was that this she finds it difficult for an online system to help JIFSAN deliver even a small part of the actual experience. But then she talked about their efforts to record lectures, provide voice over presentations, work with multimedia tools to allow them easy updates and modifications etc. This seems like something that she would like to do, despite the practical difficulties and issues.
My feeling is that one of the pressing challenges that they face has to do with information organisation and sharing. For the course material, notes, follow up material, everything seems to be done shared by email and CDs. Their training material is typically in the form of slides, that makes monitoring and communicating updates quite demanding.
The challenge of discovering relevant information from other sources did not seem of high priority. Janie did the exercise of identifying relevant OER, but its not that having such a catalog will help her solve any actual work problem.
On the other hand, dissemination of the information that they produce, seemed to be high in her agenda. This includes the dissemination of relevant information to the participants of the lab training. I understood that this is important for them and she is looking into mechanisms to make it easier. I wonder if we could adapt the GFSP Discovery Demonstrator that we have set up for JIFSAN to help address this issue.
Overall, a very interesting meeting a very intelligent, energetic, and (above all!) fun person. I was really impressed by the magnitude of their activities and the quality of their services, despite their quite small size. It will be a pleasure working with Janie and the rest of the JIFSAN team in the context of the GFSP.