Science, tagging and the future of web apps?

by oneafrikan on April 24, 2006

Last night I was watching the national geographic channel with everyone at home, and I caught a glimpse of what the future of the web could hold.

Many years ago (like, mid-2003) I had this idea that the internet was actually a bit dysfunctional (imagine that) and that there were things that could be done to improve its usefulness.
For example:

  1. Google search results are not dated reverse chronologically, so that means that sometimes you get search results that are clearly old or not up to date – so that doesn’t help if you’re researching something online and you get many search results that still have to be sorted for recency
  2. Search engines as a general rule search for words in pages. Because they’re not human, they can’t do the horizontal matching and processing that humans can make. So for example, a page I create may be useful for botanists as well as biochemists… but my page may be created on a site for botanists and might have botany specific keywards. That may be because I’m writing a paper for a botany journal, but that doesn’t exclude the fact that my findings are not relevant to other researchers…

OK, so I’ve harped enough and I’m sure lots of people will tell me I’m wrong, but in my mind the fact remains that search engines are good, but not good enough, yet.

75 000 years ago there was a cataclysmic event on earth that had a devastating effect on life for at least 1,000 years. It was a supervolcano, and it’s eruption created a layer of sulphur in the atmosphere that blocked out sun, and created acid rain; the effect of which was a mini-ice age. Wikipedia | National Geographic

This in itself is not really related to this post, but what is related, is that it took 3 different scientists working in 3 different fields in 3 different parts of the world, to figure this out. I won’t go into the details (add a comment if you want me to mention it) of what they were researching ‘cos it will take long and I don’t have the time, but the bottom line is that all three scientists were working on the same problem without knowing about it – what happened on earth 75 000 years ago?

So, imagine being able create a page, and tag it with a date as well as descriptive words, in an application that allows researchers around the world to collaborate on the problems of our time.

This could be an end in itself, but it could also be indexed by other search engines too. In the instance above, the scientists could for example tag it with “75 000 years ago”; “supervolcano”; “cataclysmic event”; and anyone looking for help or already working on problems with keywords like that could find out who else on earth is working on similiar problems.

I cannot understand why in this day and age, researchers around the world still rely on journals to find out what other people are studying? (I am a bit out of it, so perhaps things have changed but I somehow don’t think so…)

So, the question is, why all the fuss about web apps and social networking, when we could be creating web apps that help to make the world a better place?

Anyone with thoughts / ideas / comments / criticisms?


The simple answer to your question is that many people are deliberately using social web technologies to “make the world a better place” in all the myriad manifestations of what that means.

This sounds like a candidate proposal for MySociety to evaluate for their next project.

You might also consider an appearance at Web 2.0 For Good.

More specifically, I don’t think academics are wholly relying on journals to find out what others are working on. They’re a place for formal publication of peer-reviewed work, not a clearing house for collaborators.

Despite the advances in all kinds of information and communications technologies, not least the Internet itself which grew out of the academic world, most academics still seem to collaborate with others from their own universities. Proximity and face-to-face still matter – or are valued more highly over the costs involved with finding remote partners and working via ICT.

by Adrian on April 26, 2006 at 5:06 pm. Reply #

Hey Adrian

Thanks for the links to MySociety and Web 2.0 For Good. Gonna check them out now.

I don’t doubt that journals are for peer-reviewed work, and not intended as a collaboration tool, but I still wonder why the scientists I was talking about above only found out about what each was doing so late into their respective projects… Surely if they had known about each other earlier on, they could have come to their conclusion sooner?

That said, somethings just take time and happen in their own way, so maybe I’m drawing too much of a general comparison when I should be looking at more examples…

Your point about people working with people they can see and interact with is so true, and I find that in pretty much everything I do – there is a lot to be said for human interaction, and this is why I don’t think we’ll ever truly replace human contact with robotic, but that’s another conversation – but I do still think that if the academics are able to find each other quicker, and get access to research findings and results quicker, then that can only be a good thing.

We also have to remember that the current generation of academics didn’t grow up with the internet the way it is now. I can just imagine my zoology department at uni still using Pegasus mail just because they’re so stuck in their ways and their just isn’t budget to invest. They’re not by definition early adopters (I’m talking everyone except the technology academics here). Perhaps the next generation of academics who have grown up with email, IM, skype, blogging, Wiki’s etc etc will approach things differently?

by Gareth Knight on April 27, 2006 at 12:24 pm. Reply #

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