Inside Rensselaer
Researchers to Create  Web Platforms for Massive Scientific Collaboration
Web scientists at Rensselaer will use the World Wide Web to compile and share scientific data on an unprecedented scale. Their goal is to hasten scientific discovery and innovation by enabling rapid and easy collaboration between scientists, educators, students, policy makers, and even “citizen scientists” around the world via the Web.

Funded by $1.1 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the research seeks to break science out of the hallowed halls of the laboratory and place it in the hands of the people.

* Researchers to Create Web Platforms for Massive Scientific Collaboration
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The Semantic Web technology being creating in the Tetherless World Research Constellation will allow scientists, educators, and people around the world to access data on a variety of topics all in one place, bringing together scientific data in unprecedented ways. Represented here are just some of the areas that would intersect during a search for data on the Earth’s atmosphere.
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“We want to provide a toolkit for scientists and educators that allows them to gain access to data from a variety of sources and, importantly, outside of their direct area of expertise,” said Peter Fox, the principal investigator for the project and Senior Constellation Professor in the Tetherless World Constellation at Rensselaer. “Right now there are many scientists, educators, and policy makers who want to use other’s scientific data, but they don’t know how to find it, how it was collected, and even how to read it.”

The new toolkit will have a foundation in Semantic Web technology. On the Web, semantic computer code (known as ontologies) provides underlying meaning and links to the information that is presented on a Web page to your computer, smart phone, or other Web-enabled device without the need for human intervention.

“Semantic technologies lower the barrier of entry to do science,” said co-principal investigator on the project and Senior Constellation Professor Deborah McGuinness. “With semantics, we can bridge the gap between the question that someone wants to ask in their limited scientific vocabulary and the extreme complexity of the underlying data.”

Fox, McGuinness, and their counterpart on the project, Senior Constellation Professor James Hendler, will use semantic ontologies to build customizable Web sites. Each Web site will be familiar, understandable, and navigable to its end user depending on the level and type of expertise. Behind the simple façade of the Web site will rest billions of pages of data all semantically tagged and ready to be accessed and interpreted by the computer. The user needs only to type a question and it will be answered using data input by other users around world. The researchers also plan to create plug-in applications for commonly used data software such as Excel which adds access to the data in a format that is familiar to the end user.

“We want to accelerate the growth of community knowledge,” McGuinness said. “We want to encourage others to look at the data, interpret the data in their own ways, reuse the data, and even verify the data.”

Fox, McGuinness, and Hendler see the technology helping to lead a revolution in the citation and, possibly, review of scientific data. Much like Wikipedia, the data on their Web sites and technologies will be viewed and used by a wide range of users, from leading scientific experts to elementary school teachers, and all reviewers will be able to comment and cite the data.

“There will be extensive new opportunities to review the data,” Fox said. “It may not be a traditional peer review as is the custom in scientific publication because many people will not be experts, but each user will bring a very legitimate point of view to the data particularly when they use it in new and different ways.” Thus, a school teacher could make a discovery on sea level change that an oceanographer may never have found.

To read full news release on the project visit: http://news.rpi.edu:80/update.do?artcenterkey=2637.
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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 3, Number 10, October 9, 2009
©2009 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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