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When Microsoft Research teamed up with the University of California Berkeley to create a digital tool for exploring the history of everything, we knew we had the potential to build a killer educational app. After all, a tool that can reveal the cross-currents of history, revealing the interdependencies that cut across disciplines, geographies, and cultures, would offer a major advance in the understanding of Big History—the history of not just humanity, but of life, Earth and, ultimately, the cosmos. Moreover, it would provide researchers with a tool to derive unique insights based on multidisciplinary connections between vastly disparate data sets.
On March 12, the resulting tool, ChronoZoom—a dynamic, zoomable timeline that starts with Big Bang and ends with modern history—won first prize in the Educational Resources category of the 2013 SXSW Interactive Awards. As described on the SXSW website, the SXSW Interactive Awards competition “uncovers the best new digital work, from mobile and tablet apps to websites and installations, while celebrating those who are building tomorrow's interactive trends.”
ChronoZoom was developed to make time relationships between different studies of history clear and vivid. In the process, it provides a framework for exploring related electronic resources. It thus serves as a “master timeline,” tying together all kinds of specialized timelines and electronic resources, and aspires to bridge the gap between humanities and the sciences and to bring together and unify all knowledge of the past. With the planned addition of in-browser content and authoring tools, we hope to enable educators and researchers to build timelines; explore rich, multidisciplinary contextual spaces; and to tell and share stories based on authoritative data.
Donald Brinkman, Roland Saekow, and Michael Zyskowski accept the 2013 SXSW Interactive Award for Education
The ChronoZoom project is part of the Outercurve Foundation’s Research Accelerators Gallery. The Outercurve Foundation, a non-profit, open-source foundation, provides software IP management and project development governance to 22 open-source projects. Developers can get involved by visiting the source code project on GitHub.
In his acceptance speech, Michael Zyskowski dedicated the award to Lee Dirks, who strongly believed in and supported the ChronoZoom project.
I encourage you to experience the power of ChronoZoom for yourself. But be forewarned—it can be addictive!
—Donald Brinkman, Program Manager, Microsoft Research Connections
The best way to describe how I’m feeling is deeply honored and emotionally moved. This is the feeling I get every time we start a Microsoft Translator Hub project in language preservation or translation because it is always an honor and privilege to work on preserving a language. Whether it’s in Fresno, California, working to preserve Hmong, or in distant Dhulikhel, Nepal, working to provide translations for Nepali, the feeling’s the same—a visceral sense of making an impact. I can attest that this feeling is a distinct benefit of being a part of the Microsoft Research Connections team.
The last week of September, I visited the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo—or more accurately, I was warmly welcomed to these homelands of the Mayan people. Together with my colleagues Erick Stephens, director of technology at Microsoft Mexico, and Adrian Hernandez Becerril, a program manager at Microsoft Mexico, I came to the Universidad Intercultural Maya de Quintana Roo to finalize a project to preserve the Mayan language. Our visit marked the culmination of months-long discussions with the university and various government officials and was, in my opinion, a significant day on any calendar (more on calendars below). The future of the Mayan language is uncertain. University president Francisco Javier Rosado-May said it best when we first spoke back in May at the 2012 Latin American Faculty Summit in Cancun: “If we do not do anything to stop it, Mayan will be extinct within two generations.” President Rosado-May is extremely motivated to turn the tide, to change the future of the Mayan language, and his enthusiasm is infectious. So we and our partners in Microsoft Mexico decided to sponsor a project at his university along with Assistant Professor Martin Esquivel-Pat, to enable Mayan to survive the present and leap into the next b'ak'tun (in other words, the next long cycle of the Mayan calendar). For those of you who are concerned that the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world this December 20, let me assure you, as my hosts in Quintana Roo assured me, this is simply the end of a time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar developed by the Mayans—a timekeeper more accurate than our own Julian calendar, by the way. What the Mayans say is that this December 21, we will be starting the next b'ak'tun, and with that, we hope, an era where Mayan remains a viable language for generations to come.
On arrival at the university, we were greeted by Javier Díaz Carvajal, head of the Secretariat of Economic Development for Quintana Roo, who, on behalf of the governor, extended me the honor of being made an “adopted citizen” of Quintana Roo. Afterwards, we signed an agreement with the government and the university to work on developing a Mayan language translation system that is solely built by the community and shared only when they decide to do so. And that is the real benefit of the Microsoft Translator Hub: it places the power of developing automatic translation models into the hands of the community where it belongs.
For the remainder of the day and the one that followed, we gave presentations and trained our hosts, professional translators, and students at the university on using the Microsoft Translator system, both through the Hub interface (which any bilingual person can use with a little training) and programmatically (which requires some technical knowledge). The latter is significant, as the university is looking to establish a computer and information science program, and this programmatic work with the Microsoft Translator Hub can help them build expertise in this area. My colleagues and I wanted to assist them in this endeavor in every way possible. But back to building the language translation system. Microsoft Translator Hub makes the process easy, but it still takes time and commitment from the community—it doesn’t just happen overnight. It took our partners at California State University of Fresno and the Hmong Language Partners more than seven months to collect and add enough parallel data (between Hmong and English), upload it to the system, train, build, and release the Hmong translator.
We got a preview of how the Mayan translation system might work at a workshop we ran in Quintana Roo—which focused largely on building a translator system between Spanish and Yucatec (a local Mayan dialect). Participants employed another distinguishing feature of the Microsoft Translator Hub that enables you to build translation systems directly between any two languages instead of pivoting (and propagating errors) through English. How long it will take to build a functional Mayan translator is unknown right now, but I know the community is very motivated to get it done early in the next b'ak'tun!
I believe it is vital to future of the human race that we remember and preserve our past. My colleagues and I are thrilled to have the opportunity to play even a small part in making that happen.
—Kristin Tolle, Director, Natural User Interactions Team, Microsoft Research Connections
This blog post is one I would never wish to write. As many of you know, in late August, my friend and colleague, Lee Dirks, and his wife Judy were killed in an automobile accident while vacationing in Peru. They leave behind two young daughters and broken hearts throughout Microsoft Research and beyond.
Lee joined Microsoft some sixteen years ago, after many years in the library world, first at Columbia University, then at OCLC (Online Computer Library Center). For 10 years, he worked at Microsoft in many areas, including the corporate archives and library. He was one of the first people I hired after taking over the leadership of Microsoft Research Connections six years ago.
I met Lee at a library event at the University of Washington. We hit it off immediately, in part because of our shared conviction that scholarly communications were going to change radically over the next five years, with profound implications for university libraries and academic publishers, and in part because Lee was just such a larger-than-life personality, with an infectious sense of humor and an obvious zest for living.
Lee joined my leadership team at Microsoft Research Connections—a bit of an outlier, as a librarian in a group of computer scientists, but as an important and influential member as there ever was. You see, Lee had a clear vision of where scholarly publishing and library science were headed—even when others did not. He understood that the Internet was changing everything, pushing the existing publishing models towards obsolescence and fundamentally altering the academic library’s traditional role, which I’ve described as being the place where students went to meet friends, drink coffee, and read some arcane journals—all of which they can do today at any coffee shop.
Lee, more than anyone I know, championed the shift in librarianship; a shift that has seen many top library schools recreate themselves as information schools, or iSchools, for short, where the emphasis has turned to teaching the skills of information retrieval and evaluation. He used his vast connections in the library world to promote the iSchool paradigm. When confronted by old-school reactionaries, he loved to quote U.S. General Eric Shinseki: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
Lee was a powerful voice for change in the publishing world, too, pushing for the new model of interconnectedness, in which not only journal articles are available online, but so are the underlying data sets for review and commentary. It’s a world where information is rapidly and inexpensively disseminated and where collegial interactions are fostered. Lee also championed the DOCX format, recognizing the power of surrounding the text with meta-data links to the underlying data and related research.
Here in Microsoft Research Connections, Lee assembled a great team of experts in education and scholarly communications and used his network in that community to create the Scholarly Communications section of The Fourth Paradigm, the book that expounds on the late Jim Gray’s vision of data-intensive science. In this and so many other endeavors, Lee’s connections in the library and publishing worlds nicely complemented mine in the science community. Lee made many other contributions to our organization. He shaped Microsoft Academic Search into an extremely useful tool for the research community. He was a passionate advocate for education research and championed alternate approaches, such as Just Press Play. He recognized the potential for machine translation to be used to preserve indigenous languages around the world. He strongly believed and supported the ChronoZoom project, which will bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences and bring knowledge of the history of the universe to all. These are just a few of the dozens of efforts, large and small, that he worked tirelessly to champion and make manifest.
Another side of Lee stands out for me as I recall a trip to Harvard. He invited me to join him for a beer. As we sat in the bar, I received a call from my wife, asking me what I was doing sitting around having beer when I was supposed to be on business. You see, unbeknownst to me, Lee had posted the news of our pub crawl to his Facebook site, where it was seen by my wife, a fellow librarian who was one of Lee’s many Facebook friends. Lee and my better half had a good laugh over that.
And laughter and compassion is how I will best remember Lee. He was a great man with a wonderful sense of humor, and an incredible heart. Unfailingly kind and considerate, he treated everyone as an equal. Just the other day, a writer that works for us told me how sad he was to learn of Lee’s untimely death and told me, “Lee always treated me as equal. He made me feel that my work was just as important as that of the PhDs all around me.” Of course he did. That was Lee. He saw value in everyone and what they were working on.
And now he’s gone, he and his lovely wife, leaving us all poorer for his absence and the richer for having known him. Farewell, my friend and colleague, you’ve left us far too soon.
—Tony Hey, Vice President, Microsoft Research Connections