Science 2.0 evolves

4 pillars of context

Programmers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications are developing a Web portal and collaboration tools for scientists. They say that establishing context in the following four ways is critical to the success of such systems.

  • Social: Online communication and collaboration among peers harness the power of social networking.

  • Geospatial: A lot of scientific data is related to physical locations, so context maps are important for understanding its significance.

  • Provenance: Source information helps scientists validate discoveries and interpret results by documenting the history and causal relationship of work.

  • Semantic: Capturing ontologies/metadata created in the discovery process can improve the ability to search, brows and analyze.

— Ben Bain

Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:11 a.m. Nov. 8, 2007. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

Researchers from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois are turning to Web 2.0 tools to improve how scientists worldwide can work together and conduct research.

NCSA programmers have created a Web portal called the CyberCollaboratory that provides researchers with blogs, geospatial applications and other collaborative tools to make the scientific process more transparent and efficient.

“You do your thing as a professor, you write it up in a paper, and it goes off into the literature and…maybe somebody will make a change in their research based on your paper a couple of years down the road,” said James Myers, associate director of cyber environments at NCSA. “What we are trying to do is sort of short-circuit that cycle and make it so that as soon as you have a new idea or a result it can get posted…and get used.”

Concerning the big picture, NCSA portal developers hope that by speeding the rate at which scientists share raw and quality controlled data, people will see the benefits of research much quicker as accurate modeling becomes more available to decision-makers. They also expect that by including digital metadata about the origins of raw data and scientific analyses, scientists and policy-makers will be able to ensure that models are current and complete.

For example, about 400 scientists nationwide use the CyberCollaboratory as they work on a National Science Foundation-funded project to explore how natural and human-induced changes to the environment affect water quantity and quality.

Scientists working on the Water and Environmental Research Systems Network have been using the online tools to share documents, organize discussions and report their activities in blogs, said Barbara Minsker, the project’s principal investigator and professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois.

The online tools help scientists from 11 test sites nationwide where water data is collected and analyzed better coordinate research, Minsker said. Eventually, the provenance features that track the origins of research mean people will get credit for their work and, in turn, be more likely to share their work, she said.

The CyberCollaboratory portal was built using Liferay's open-source portal software. NCSA officials chose the platform because it lets them add new online capabilities as research methods and technologies evolve during projects that could last decades, Myers said. Participating scientists are encouraged to change and alter analytic tools then share them with other scientists.

NCSA's use of Liferay open-source software and interoperable Java protocols is critical to the long-term success of the project, said Bryan Cheung, the company’s chief executive officer.

Organizers said the geospatial and mapping tools in the CyberCollaboratory will allow researchers to study areas such as water resources on a broader basis — a primary goal of the Water and Environmental Research Systems Network project.

“They fund academic research in these areas now, but this would be something that pushes academia to look at things at a continental scale and global issues as opposed to site-by-site issues,” Myers said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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