FAQ

(We also highly recommend viewing our BIRN Video Introduction by Carl Kesselman.)

What is BIRN, and why does it exist?

BIRN is a national initiative to advance biomedical research through data sharing and online collaboration.  We are funded by the National Institute of General Medicine Sciences (NIGMS), a unit of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), to provide data-sharing infrastructure, software tools, strategies and advisory services.  Our work focuses directly on the biomedical research community’s unique, data-intensive sharing and analysis needs.

What does BIRN offer?

BIRN supports multi-site and/or multi-institutional teams by enabling researchers to share significant quantities of data across geographic distance and/or incompatible computing systems.  We offer a library of data-sharing software tools specific to biomedical research, best practices references, expert advice and other resources.  These options can help users maximize their existing technical infrastructure and expertise, make possible large-scale data analysis, and facilitate innovative research approaches.

We enable users to participate directly in BIRN through our Working Groups, which actively develop and support operations, data-sharing requirements, security and other vital considerations.  BIRN also offers a website, wiki and mailing lists to help users stay current on news, best practices and topics related directly to their data-sharing considerations.  And our experts can help biomedical teams select software, data and metadata community standards; security mechanisms and sharing protocols; and multi-institutional policies from among sometimes-bewildering options.

Who is behind BIRN?

BIRN consists of computer scientists, engineers, physicians, biomedical researchers and others who are cooperating to facilitate biomedical research advances through ready sharing of information.  Our participants represent some of the nation’s premier technical and healthcare research universities, hospitals and other institutions.  Please see the Executive Committee and Steering Committee pages for leadership profiles.

BIRN began as a National Center for Research Resources initiative built around several “testbeds,” or select projects, in neurology research.  In 2009, its mandate expanded significantly to include data-sharing support across the biomedical research community.

What can BIRN help me achieve?

BIRN provides a framework for sharing biomedical research across disparate groups or institutions.  If you frequently need to move large quantities of data between collaborating researchers, need to query data from different sources, or require other help making sense of our data, BIRN’s proven infrastructure can enable you to do so easily and efficiently.  Our internal expertise also can help you keep your systems functioning optimally, and provides a reliable resource if you have questions or need help.

Are there minimum requirements for participation?

In a word, no.  BIRN seeks to aid university- and institute-based researchers with geographically and/or technically distributed projects, such as multi-site clinical trials.  Our Working Groups (WGs) evaluate candidate projects, based on their unique characteristics and use cases, in the WGs’ respective specialties.  While BIRN WGs may consider factors such as project scale, research goals, technical challenges, host institution, and sponsor funding, there are no specific criteria or required sizes.

What kinds of groups can get the most out of BIRN?

While there’s no single answer to that question, there are some key characteristics.  On a technical level, your group must need to exchange data between multiple sites on an ongoing basis, not just from one site to another or for a one-time-only project.  Alternatively, you may want to make data from multiple sites publicly available.

On a social level, we ask that you understand your users’ data-sharing problems and be able to articulate how those issues affect them in day-to-day, real-world ways.  We don’t expect your team to be technical wizards.  But the more specific you can be about your data-sharing needs and problems, the faster we’ll know whether we can help.

We also view BIRN commitments as true partnerships in which we contribute technical expertise, and you provide the knowledge specific to your field.  For instance, we can advise you on how to go about defining user needs and requirements, but only your users can determine specifically what those factors should be.  It’s also important to remember that BIRN offers assistance with customized solutions, not a plug-and-play, off-the-shelf product.  The necessary factor for success:  an enthusiastic, thoughtful team committed to conceiving, designing, building and implementing an optimal solution.

How do I begin working with BIRN?

We invite you to fill out our contact form.  A BIRN representative will respond within one week.  If our services appear to be a good match for your technical needs, s/he may refer you to a BIRN member for assistance – or to one of our Working Groups for more in-depth conversations.

Working Groups typically discuss:

  • whether BIRN’s capabilities address your data usage requirements;
  • which BIRN tools and areas of expertise best fit your project;
  • who within BIRN will interact with your team, and how;
  • how to create a mutually agreeable set of expectations; and
  • what schedule is required to meet your project variables, including size, scope, goals, resources, constraints and timelines.

Can’t I share data just as well with FTP or web file point-to-point transactions?

Yes, but with significant limitations.  A single researcher may be able to email information or, if a file is too large, to post it to an FTP site.  She or he also may be able to upload web files for downloading by another researcher.

But these options may be impractical – or impossible – with extremely large data sets (or large numbers of smaller files), multiple users, and the need for ongoing data access.  Among other issues, FTP may not be fast enough to transfer very large files in reasonable time frames.  FTP can’t handle or transfer partial files, potentially an issue with very large data files.

Nor is FTP secure.  Ad hoc data sharing via FTP may seriously compromise data security and privacy – and violate HIPAA requirements.

BIRN addresses these and other technical issues from a single source.  Our software tools include data handling, security, management and retrieval options that enable users to store and access files reliably and safely from disparate locations and/or user systems.

Does BIRN meet NIH data-sharing requirements?

Yes and no. NIH now requires public data sharing on some funded projects to support additional knowledge discovery. Data must be provided in ways that are findable, retrievable and understandable by others, not simply posted on a project website.

The audience for shared data can be unrestricted (the general public), somewhat restricted (the scientific community), or highly restricted (members of a consortium or research project). When working with BIRN, there is no requirement that you share data beyond your designated group. Whether you choose to make your data available, and at what level, remains your choice – and is entirely under your control. Similarly, your user group is not guaranteed access to others’ data.

As a result, your data-sharing approach may or may not meet NIH requirements. This determination remains between your consortia and your NIH program officers.

BIRN believes in the benefits of open data availability and reuse to the wider scientific community, and actively promotes data sharing efforts by the scientific community.

How is the current BIRN model different from its previous one?

We have refocused BIRN’s offerings in significant ways.  Most importantly, BIRN is now open to all biomedical research groups, regardless of specialty.  We also see our mission as supporting efficient data transfer, in observance of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) privacy and security guidelines – not as a creator of, or repository for, user data.

As a result, BIRN no longer provides hardware, and does not offer or maintain servers (previously called “racks”) for storing user information.  Nor do we use a system in which participants’ computers function as data “nodes” on a unified computing grid.

BIRN’s capabilities provide a user-driven, software-based infrastructure that supports data sharing, regardless of participants’ existing hardware and software.  Hardware is under the control, and is the responsibility, of each BIRN participant.

Data likewise is stored by users on participants’ own systems, rather than in a central repository.  Each user group retains control over the security and privacy of its own information.  Our software-based approach also makes possible storage of, and access to, vastly greater data quantities than resided on previous BIRN “racks” alone.

Who does BIRN work with now, and how?

BIRN now works with groups ranging from relatively small consortia who receive NIGMS  grants to large organizations, such as the Nonhuman Primate Research Consortium (NHPRC).  We typically provide data sharing, query and analysis tools that enable users both to access data and to perform meaningful research on that information.  For more information, please see our Collaborators section.

BIRN is supported by NIH grants 1U24-RR025736, U24-RR021992, U24-RR021760 and by the Collaborative Tools Support Network Award 1U24-RR026057-01.