What is the (e) in your eResearch?

By Guest Author 16/06/2010

By Julian Carver

First eMail, then eCommerce, eBusiness & eProcurement, eGovernment, eDating, and now eResearch. Does simply putting an ‘e’ in front of an existing practice make it somehow sexier, and more now? I headed along to the Wellington eResearch Symposium last week to find out.

OK, that’s not true. I did go to the Wellington eResearch Symposium last week, but I already have deeply held views about eResearch and have been advocating the concept for six or seven years. I’m just pretending to be a journalist today, and that sounded like something a journalist would say.

The Wellington eResearch Symposium was held on Tuesday 8thJune, and was organised by Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) with support from Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand Ltd (REANNZ).*

First lesson in eResearch — there are going to be lots of acronyms.

The event was an opportunity for people actually doing eResearch to share what they were up to, and how they were using technology to improve their science/humanities research.

Second lesson in eResearch — it’s not just scientists that are using it, there are incredible things happening in the humanities too.

In the second session of the day, Julie Watson, eResearch Advisor at MoRST asked ’What the h(e)ll is (e)Research?’, and proposed that ’(e) = ICT’. She suggested that using ICT in research ’changes the scale and sensitivity of instruments, enables remote access to results, instruments, & data resources, makes simulation and modeling of virtual experiments possible, creates aggregations of data, and accelerates research interaction and expands the scale.’ Any clearer now? It makes sense to me, but how does the average, non IT-savvy researcher make use of all of this? Julie asked ’What is the (e) in your eResearch?’, and this very useful question helped give context to each of the presentations.

For the keynote presenter, Markus Buchhorn, of Intersect New South Wales, it seems the (e) is somewhat of an €, or at least our Australasian $ sign version of such. He presented on the ’eResearch landscape in Australia’. It was evident that our neighbours across the Tasman are well organised, and have invested significant money into eResearch. Their NCRIS programme1 (National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy) is investing $540 million over 4 years. In order to maximise the development and use of shared ICT infrastructure for research, they focused on ’friendly collaboration encouraged by force!’. That is, they allowed only one proposal for each research discipline, requiring a facilitator and consensus within that discipline, and provided $20-70 million over 4-5 years for those people to develop their required ICT infrastructure.

In addition, ‘Platforms for Collaboration’  was set up, and given $80 million over four years to fill in the gaps the individual programmes couldn’t deliver themselves. This includes a national supercomputing facility, an advanced research network (AREN), the Australian Access Federation for authentication/authorisation across organisations, the Australian Research Collaboration Service for tools to help researchers collaborate online, and the Australian National Data Service to provide advice on data curation, preservation, publication, and a ‘research data commons’ for Australia. As we learned later in the day, New Zealand may have the most supercomputing power per capita, but the Australians are investing proportionally more into supporting eResearch than we are. The challenge they still had however, was getting researchers actually using the above tools. This is where Intersect stepped in. They provide eResearch Analysts, placed out at the Universities, to help researchers understand how to apply eResearch infrastructure and tools in their research.

For Australia then, the (e) in eResearch isn’t just the money for ICT that ‘enhances’ and ‘enables’ research, it’s ‘engagement’, the human side and culture change aspects.

Third lesson in eResearch — regardless of how much technology you put in, if you don’t pay attention to the human aspects, it just won’t work, i.e. the soft stuff is the hard stuff.

Over the rest of the day, we heard about eResearch in the humanities, NIWA’s High Performance Computing Facility, BeSTGRID (our GRID computing infrastructure), eResearch and online volunteerism, the NZ Electronic Text Centre’s migrating a settler poet’s work to the web, astrophysics and the universe at high time resolution, and the curing of unwell online students.

Fourth lesson in eResearch — it is being applied in diverse, beautiful and fascinating ways.

While all the sessions were worthy of individual write ups, there isn’t space in what would constitute a significantly concise blog post. They are all viewable online as streaming video2 however, and the slides can be found at [insert location/endnote link]. Here are two that I personally found compelling.

Republic of Letters
Republic of Letters

For Dr Sydney Shep, from VUW, the (e) in her eResearch is ‘enhanced’ and ‘electronic’. She discussed the use of electronic tools to data mine entire digital libraries of historical literary works to extract broad meaning and ask macro historical questions and understand social themes in ways that would have been impossible by individual researchers physically reading the works. This ‘distant reading’ allows scholars to probe whole systems by counting, mapping and graphing novels. While ’Compared with human reading, digital textual analysis is more of a machete than a scalpel, but a lot of useful machete work can be done’ 3. For example, ‘FeatureLens4’ was used to study different editions of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ to explore Darwin’s conceptual evolution as dialogue and debate within and outside the scientific community impacted on this thinking5. Another project, ’Visualization of the Republic of Letters’ — used a geomashup to study the ways ideas were exchanged during the 18th-century virtual gathering and social networks of intellectuals who remained connected through exchange of manuscripts, letters and printed works6.

Slava Kitaev
UPDATE: A magnetar (not an x-ray pulsar)

For Dr Slava Kitaev, from Auckland University of Technology, the (e)in his eResearch was, at least for me, ‘entrancing’. It could also have been ‘extremely large datasets’. He presented on ‘Search for the unknown: Universe at high time resolution’.  The Transient Radio Emission Array Detector (TREAD) project is a collaboration between AUT, VUW, the University of Otago, and the International Centre for Radioastronomy Research in Perth, Australia. It is also supported by the Blue Fern supercomputer at the University of Canterbury, and BeSTGRID. The project involves detecting very transient astronomical phenomenon such as annihilating primordial black holes, anomalous x-ray pulsars, and gamma ray bursts from exploding stars. These phenomena are called transient because they are only detectable over very short time windows, often at the nanosecond scale. This involves gathering massive amounts of data from distributed arrays of sensors (1.7-22Terabytes per day). This is then transferred between supercomputers in Auckland and Christchurch (using BeSTGRID over KAREN) to perform successive steps in the candidate data selection, validation, analysis and long term storage, allowing researchers to identify and understand these transient cosmic phenomena.

NIWA's supercomputer (Credit: NIWA)
NIWA's supercomputer (Credit: NIWA)

In other sessions we heard about KAREN (the Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network) which, while attractively named, is in fact hard core infrastructure connecting NZ research organisations with each other and internationally using super high speed bandwidth, learned that NIWA has one of the top 500 supercomputers in the world and is using it to simulate extremely complex physical and biophysical systems**, and that the BeSTGRID project7 is providing tools and virtual research environments to allow distributed collaborative research using massive amounts of data on topics as diverse as drug discovery, genetics research, and invasive pest modelling. Without a lot of money our researchers are using technology to achieve some incredible things.

So, for New Zealand, perhaps the (e) in our Research is more like the archetypical kiwi (i)s — ingenuity, innovation, and inspiration.

Fifth lesson in eResearch — it’s an opportunity for NZ researchers to overcome our tyranny of distance and lack of resources and change the world, just as Ernest Rutherford did in his time.

Julian Carver is an independent consultant focused on information systems related strategy and cross agency data sharing. He has been involved in many eResearch and science data sharing initiatives.




[2] Streaming video of the Wellington eResearch Symposium sessions

[3] Quote abbreviated from Martin Meuller

[4] Featurelens – From the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland

[5] On the Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Traces

[6] Video about The Republic of Letters (For the website itself, go here. Tip: click on ‘flow’ – very beautiful)


* This post was corrected on June 17th to more accurately reflect who organised the Symposium

** Corrected: previously read “for climate science research’

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