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Jonathan Fay and I recently visited the California Academy of Sciences, the world-class natural history museum and research center located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Our goals were to connect in person with Academy researchers and to help prepare the Academy’s Morrison Planetarium for an Academy NightLife event. This particular NightLife featured Microsoft technology—including Windows Mobile—and a planetarium show that demonstrated the astronomy capabilities of Microsoft Research’s WorldWide Telescope. I was particularly interested in talking with Academy researchers about my work with the new and more local phase of Worldwide Telescope, which uses recently developed tools and capabilities to create earth-science data visualizations and tell stories—supported by the high-resolution imagery of Bing maps.
Hippocampus reidi, the Atlantic seahorse whose phylogenetic tree we are re-growing in WWT
I spoke at some length with several of the Academy’s researchers about the potential of WorldWide Telescope (WWT) as an earth-science research tool, and about how to visualize interesting and often complex datasets. As one consequence, I am now working on a proof-of-concept example for them that uses WWT to render the phylogenetic tree for a particular genus of seahorse as a space-time diagram in relation to the Earth. The idea is to illustrate the genetic distance between different species in relation to spatial separations between their native habitats. By extension, such diagrams could span orders, families, and even classes of living organisms.
We also spoke with the Academy researchers about broader data problems: specifically, the potential for using what we call the Environmental Information Framework—developed within our Earth, Energy, and Environment group—to address information-management challenges. We discussed different approaches to managing and publishing data and how Microsoft technologies (research tools, products, and services) might be applied to help.
Another fun development from this visit: by using GeoSynth, the standalone version of Microsoft Photosynth, I generated a digital representation of the museum’s iconic Tyrannosaurus rex (T. rex) from a set of photographs I took. I then created a Worldwide Telescope narrative tour that relocated the T. rex outside to a nearby baseball park. (I have her playing center field.) The tour features several of the source photographs as well; so we are exploring a combination of different types of data to tell the story.
To further expand on this new idea of employing WWT for more than exploring stars and galaxies: I use WWT to create visualizations of robotic submarine missions, clouds of organic molecules culled from Arctic rivers, twisted and knotted magnetic fields around the sun, distributions of soil carbon across the United States, biodiversity of sharks throughout the world’s oceans, and lots more. The complexity that all these datasets have in common makes it difficult to place them on a chart; to get them into WWT, all I need is some sort of coordinate basis—be it geographical, geometrical or parametric—and off we go!
Digital representation of Tyrannosaurus rex with photo inset of actual skeleton
To me, the common denominator between seahorses, dinosaurs, stars, planets, and carbon molecules is our fascination with learning about the natural world and the enjoyment of sharing our understanding with one another. Scientists spend years learning the details of their specialization, learning which questions to ask next. With the emergence of new data-generating tools to answer these questions, we see the corresponding emergence of the “drowning in data” syndrome, a malady we find rampant across all specializations and domains. Well, computers got us into this fix, and so we are working on ways to use computers to get us out.
As a member of the Microsoft Research Connections team, I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to research scientists and say, essentially, “How can we help?” Given a few minutes to show them what we have in the works, the ensuing conversations are enjoyable, and often lead to productive collaborations. We hope that those collaborations, in turn, lead to solutions that will be usable by others in the earth- and life-sciences. But, as a T. rex playing center field might suggest: one step at a time…so I’m looking forward to our ongoing conversations with the Academy.
—Rob Fatland, Senior Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections
On October 25, 2011, Microsoft Research Connections released an update to Zentity, a repository platform designed to manage research objects—such as journal articles, reports, datasets, projects, and people—as well as the relationships among them. Zentity supports arbitrary data models, and provides semantically rich functionality that enables users to find and visually explore interesting relationships among elements by using the Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer control and Microsoft Research Visual Explorer.
With the 2.1 release, Zentity now includes the Resource Manager web user interface that provides better content management capabilities via easier ways to query the database, review and update records, and create and edit relationships among items. The Resource Manager will work with custom data models and even enables users to save searches for later use. Zentity 2.1 also offers the option to install a localized Spanish-language version of the software.
I would like to highlight and thank a few of our partners who have been working with a variety of institutions to customize their Zentity deployments.
Building Blocks has partnered with the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to expose the ESRC’s catalog of research projects and their outputs. The ESRC catalog contains more than 100,000 research objects, including books and journal articles as well as research outcomes and impact reports. The PivotViewer control integrated into Zentity 2.1 provides a visually compelling yet simple way for end-users to browse, filter, and explore decades’ worth of ERSC grant data and to find relevant research reports.
In a case study on this project, Building Blocks wrote:
Zentity was seen as the ideal research repository solution as it can handle the complex data models, whilst also providing data access in many open formats. In addition the team designed a more intuitive and robust backend system to enable ESRC support teams to manage the submission of research outputs, reducing management overhead. The quality and consistency of the data was also improved by ensuring the internal workflows were more efficient and allowing integration with other academic data sources such as SHERPA/RoMEO.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, Company Net partnered with Queen Margaret University to create an online experience for the digital archive of content from the Homecoming Scotland 2009 events. A Scottish government initiative, Homecoming Scotland 2009 was a year-long celebration of Scottish culture and achievements. The archive site also uses the PivotViewer control to make it easy to pivot among the people, places, and events associated with the Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations.
And finally, working with a collection of researcher data and electronic theses and dissertations at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University (UJTL) in Bogotá, Colombia, Microsoft Partner Softtek delivered a solution localized in Spanish and customized to the needs of the researchers and integrated into UJTL’s environment. In his Softtek blog, Antonio Macias writes:
Having partnered with Microsoft Research in the deployment of Zentity 2.0 has definitely been an enriching experience for us since, on one hand, we have demonstrated Softtek’s continuous commitment to deliver high-quality services while working jointly with a highly respected high-tech company like Microsoft. We have been exposed to emergent technologies that will shape our world in the next 5 or 10 years. Indeed this exposure will help us add a fresh perspective to the set of solutions that we already provide to our large base of customers.
Zentity 2.1 is a freely available via download from Microsoft Research. I hope that you’ll give it a try, and if you are looking for partners to help on a deployment project, that you’ll use the Microsoft Partner Network.
—Alex Wade, Director for Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research Connections
Through my work with academics in Brazil, I have witnessed an increasing awareness of the importance of computing in advancing scientific research in such areas as bioenergy, biodiversity, climate change, and plant physiology. In order to advance these fields, scientists need to deal with increasingly complex projects that require the expertise of a multidisciplinary team, and computing is a key element in this effort.
From data acquisition to data management, visualization, and modeling, researchers confront the need for new tools to enable innovative investigations. At the Microsoft Research-FAPESP Institute, I’ve seen programs such as BIOEN (a bioenergy research program), BIOTA (a biodiversity project), and the Research Program on Global Climate Change, and they all share the need to access and manage massive amounts of data.
In light of this need, the Microsoft Research-FAPESP Institute launched the Portuguese translation of The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, a wide-ranging collection of essays on the process and promise of data-intensive science. An outgrowth of the thinking of late Microsoft researcher Jim Gray, The Fourth Paradigm sets out the parameters of twenty-first-century eScience.
The launch of the Portuguese edition took place on November 3, 2011, at FAPESP in São Paulo. Professor Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director, opened the launch event, observing that “Science advances mostly through the development and application of new instruments. Computing power, the cloud, and other facilities constitute a big new instrument that allows researchers to obtain and analyze gigantic data sets in a way which was not possible a few years ago. The Fourth Paradigm deals with this fascinating window of opportunity for science and a Portuguese translation will contribute to the visibility of the authors’ ideas in Brazil.”
Professor Roberto Marcondes Cesar, Jr., who supervised the translation into Portuguese, then spoke about eScience in Brazil. “The Brazilian computer science community has been working together with domain scientists for decades in fields such as astronomy, geoscience, bioenergy, and medicine—to name but a few. Different expressive results addressing relevant problems for the country have been achieved and the Brazilian CS [computer science] researchers proceed to increase the collaboration results both in volume and quality. In this sense, the Portuguese translation of The Fourth Paradigm represents an important step in disseminating eScience methods and opportunities, both to attract CS researchers and students to the field and to draw the attention of domain scientists who may benefit from interdisciplinary research.”
These comments set the stage for a talk by Dan Fay, the director of Microsoft Research Connection’s Earth, Energy, and Environment activities, who said, in part: “For scientists, access to massive amounts of data can be a blessing and a curse—finding the significant nuggets of information that will lead to insights in the huge volumes of data is the problem. Big data is as much challenge as opportunity. When you have data sets as a large as a petabyte, that’s always going to be difficult to move around and analyze… The science of big data is as much about asking the right questions, so that scientists collect the right data, as it is trying to sift through data after the fact.”
Microsoft Research Connections is proud to partner with FAPESP in the pursuit of data-intensive research, as together we explore the use of computing technology to meet the social and economic needs in the Brazilian state of São Paulo. Oh, and this is how you say “fourth paradigm” in Portuguese: o quarto paradigma.
—Juliana Salles, Senior Research Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections