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Microsoft Research Connections Blog

The Microsoft Research Connections blog shares stories of collaborations with computer scientists at academic and scientific institutions to advance technical innovations in computing, as well as related events, scholarships, and fellowships.

  • Microsoft Research Connections Blog

    DataUp—Data Curation for the Long Tail of Science

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    The long tail: sure, it’s a well-known concept in business and marketing, but there’s a very important “hidden” long tail in the sciences, too. So, what is this hidden long tail of science? It consists of the millions of datasets that are not stored in a databank and therefore are not available for use by other scientists. Every day, researchers throughout the world are observing, calculating, and compiling data, recording it all on their local machines within their labs—often not even as a shared resource to their institutions. Regrettably, much of this data never gets deposited in larger web-accessible data repositories where it could be reused by other investigators around the globe.

    Learn more about DataUp

    As a researcher myself and working with other researchers from around the globe, I am acutely aware of scientific data pain points; after all, those of us in the research community understand better than anyone that data preservation, curation, and sharing are critical for the advancement of scientific discovery. We want to share our data beyond our immediate groups, but many times we find ourselves hindered by a lack of tools and services designed to promote data curation and sharing.

    Enter DataUp, an open-source tool that helps us document, manage, and archive our tabular data. The DataUp project was born out of this need for seamless integration of data management into the researchers’ current workflows. The University of California Curation Center (UC3) at the California Digital Library (CDL), with sponsorship from Microsoft Research and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (GBMF), focused on creating a tool that could be used by researchers in the environmental sciences. They recognized that this field epitomizes the problems of data management and curation; in particular, the storage of data locally without data description (metadata)—such as where it was collected, by whom, and when—that would make it more usable by others.

    By conducting surveys at ecological and environmental science events, CDL found that the majority of these scientists use spreadsheets to collect and organize their data, so rather than make them learn a new program, UC3 recognized a need for a tool that works with a program most scientists already know: Microsoft Excel.

    From the results of further surveys, it was determined that about half of the scientists preferred a tool that would be installed on their laptop, while the other half wanted a web-based tool that they could use on any device. Well, we sponsors and the UC3 team were not about to let this divided preference thwart the creation of a much-needed tool, so, together, we decided that there needed to be two versions of the tool: an open-source add-in (extension) for Microsoft Excel, and an open-source web application.

    To achieve the project goals of facilitating data management, sharing, and archiving, both the add-in and the web application accomplish four main tasks:

    1. Perform a best-practices check to ensure good data organization
    2. Guide users through creation of metadata for their Excel file
    3. Help users obtain a unique identifier for their dataset
    4. Connect users to a major repository, where their data can be deposited and shared with others

    The California Digital Library established the initial repository, the ONEShare. Researchers will be able to find tools from the DataUp project as part of the Investigator Toolkit for DataONE.

    I want to thank Carly Strasser, Trisha Cruse, John Kunze, and Stephen Abrams from UC3 for their passion and commitment to bring DataUp to life. I also want to thank Chris Mentzel from GBMF for co-funding the project with Microsoft Research Connections.

    Now, get out there and DataUp!

    Kristin Tolle, Director, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Tools for Researchers Amp Up the Power of Visual Studio

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    Easy to use. Visual. Powerful.As a researcher, I know the value of having the right tools for the job. The right tool makes working easier and more efficient—well, that’s the definition of a tool, isn’t it? So if you’re like me, always looking for programming tools that help bring your research to life, you’ll want to check out this set of Microsoft Visual Studio research tools and services from Microsoft Research. These versatile tools range from games to help you get started in a new programming language to analysis engines that enhance the power and usability of Visual Studio, Microsoft’s premier development environment.

    What I especially like about this collection is its range. There’s something there to help researchers at every level—from professional computer scientists to eager students. As our marketing mavens like to say, these tools are powerful, helping to amplify your coding productivity; visual, bringing your code to life; and easy-to-use, providing you with a nearly painless way to get familiar with the many programming languages supported by Visual Studio.

    These are tools made by researchers for researchers, designed specifically to meet the needs by people who share their needs. For example, the Social for Team Foundation Server (Social for TFS) tool recognizes that much successful research is collaborative and needs software support. Created by the Collaborative Development Group at the University of Bari, Italy, Social for TFS is an extension of Visual Studio and Team Foundation Server. The tool aggregates team members’ content from multiple social media sites in order to facilitate interpersonal connections and increase the ability to connect successfully.

    We also know that code visualizations are one of the best ways to help programmers discover and repair errors as well as find and enhance efficiencies, so we’ve included a tool for this, too: Debugger Canvas, which brings together code in a single pan-and-zoom display of code bubbles. Debugger Canvas is based on a long collaboration with Brown University. It keeps the size of the visualizations meaningful and manageable, so you can make corrections easily and quickly. What’s more, you can use Debugger Canvas with large touch screens that really make the code “pop,” especially in a team code review. As John Robbins, co-founder of Wintellect in Seattle says: "Debugger Canvas demonstrates the possibilities of debugging of the future and will help break us out of this rut we are in with our debugging tools. My view is that Debugger Canvas is the start of twenty-first century debugging."

    And then we have tools like Try F#, which help you explore this powerful functional language via your browser on any operating system. Try F# can help you start using Visual Studio, quickly and easily, and it’s loaded with online tutorials and tools for creating and sharing code. It lowers the barrier to learning and utilization and has proven tremendously popular. As Try F# develops as a language, our tools are expanding, so do return to our page to look for future updates.

    Anxious to test out these tools, or just learn more? You can find them and more at Visual Studio Research Tools.

    Judith Bishop, Director of Computer Science, Microsoft Research Connections

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    Concurrency and Parallelism in the Venice of the North

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    The warm, sunny days of late August in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s “northern capital,” were made even brighter by the 2012 Microsoft Research Russian Summer School. An annual Microsoft Research event, the Russian Summer School is intended for doctoral and master’s students, as well as young scientists. This year, the program focused on concurrency and parallelism in software, and featured lectures from eight of the world’s foremost experts in this field. The school was co-chaired by Judith Bishop, the director of computer science at Microsoft Research, and Bertrand Meyer, professor of software engineering at ETH Zurich and St. Petersburg National Research University of Information Technologies, Mechanics, and Optics (ITMO).
     

    2012 Microsoft Research Russian Summer School participants
    2012 Microsoft Research Russian Summer School participants

    This year’s Russian Summer School follows the highly successful past schools: Computer Vision School 2011, MIDAS 2010, and HPC 2009. It represents another of the many collaborative efforts between Microsoft Research Connections and the world’s top research professionals and institutions.

    The school provided the participating students with a unique opportunity to learn from top scientists in the field of concurrency and parallelism. Lectures covered the fundamentals of the field and explored the latest research topics. The school also provided a great venue for interpersonal networking, enabling the students to establish connections with one another and with the school lecturers. Students had Sunday free to explore the beautiful city of Saint Petersburg—referred to as “Venice of the North” because of its picturesque canals—and carry on individual work.

    Competition for admission to the school was particularly intense. The number of registrations on the school website exceeded 600, and the overall acceptance rate was fewer than 10 percent. Most of the applicants were exceptionally strong, which made the decision process extremely difficult. The 60 admitted students came from 27 cities in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, and represented 47 academic institutions and companies. We are happy to report the continuing growth in the number of female students; women comprised more than 20 percent of this year’s class.

    Students were excited in their praise of the school’s program, which they found professionally stimulating and personally rewarding. They, and we, are looking forward to the 2013 Russian Summer School in Moscow!

    Fabrizio Gagliardi, Director, Microsoft Research Connections EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa)

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