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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
It began with a simple question: “Why can’t students earn digital rewards for being awesome?” A research group comprised of university faculty, staff, and students at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) decided to find out. The team delved into the everyday travails of college life—from academia to social activities—and developed a real-world game, Just Press Play, which helps students earn a digital reward for the ultimate achievement: collegiate success.
Each game participant receives trading cards equipped with secret codes and a radio-frequency identification (RFID) keychain that they can swipe to “check-in” at permanent and temporary locations. The cards and the keychain are just the first two tools that the students must learn to use in order to progress through the various aspects of the game. The game is based around challenges that occur both online and in the real world. The challenges are designed to encourage students to venture out of their comfort zones and get involved in all aspects of school—including interactions with school faculty and staff. Completing the challenges also gives the player access to web pages and videos that tell the story of an alternate history of RIT.
Blending Technology and the Humanities
The alternate history of RIT describes a battle fought between two rival factions: The Athenaeum and the Mechanics Institute. The Athenaeum represents the creative and exploratory aspects of a student’s academic journey and the Mechanics Institute represents technical mastery. In order to succeed, the student must understand both aspects, although they may ultimately join one side or the other.
As the program manager who chose to fund this project, it should come as no surprise that I have a background in both science and art—and that I manage programs in games for learning as well as digital humanities. Our project team likes how RIT blends the technology and humanities disciplines. RIT focuses not only on STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—but also on what we like to call STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.
Financial support for the development of Just Press Play was provided by Microsoft Research. This project is also the culmination of three years of collaboration with RIT’s School of Interactive Games and Media as part of our Games for Learning Institute. The mission of the institute is to study and create games that are fun, educational, and effective. Just Press Play fits that bill perfectly.
Just Press Play officially launched on October 13 at the RIT School of Interactive Games and Media. The kick-off event was streamed live to project partners at the University of Wisconsin, Teachers College at Columbia, and the New York Law School. These partners are assessing the effectiveness of the program and also exploring legal issues related to gameful education.
The Just Press Play team intends to expand the game throughout RIT next year if the initial pilot is successful, but other educational institutions will have to wait a bit before trying out the technology for themselves. Just Press Play will initially be available exclusively to students enrolled at RIT. The Just Press Play team will refine the structure of the game based on early results and then roll it out to partner schools at a later date. The developers are hopeful that the lessons learned from these early “games” could eventually be expanded to include more college-level institutions and, potentially, all education starting with pre-school and extending through lifelong learning and professional training.
The ultimate goal of the Microsoft Research Gameful Education project is to support the development of a unified game layer for education, one that can unify gameful experiences across schools and technologies. This platform will drive better educational outcomes and enable entirely new types of educational research.
—Donald Brinkman, Research Program Manager, Games for Learning, Digital Heritage, Digital Humanities, Microsoft Research Connections
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