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Feature - Engaging UK researchers

Opinion - Engaging UK researchers

Some of the things that ENGAGE has been involved in include software for the Aladin2 project, which allows for a simple, fast-running model of the Earth's climate system.
Image courtesy National Snow and Ice Data Center/World Data Center for Glaciology, Boulder, Colorado

It is risky to second-guess your users.

There can be a difference between what we think our users need, and what they actually need. This is especially the case when trying to create technological platforms that enhance researchers' ability to generate, collect, share, analyze, store and retrieve information; this is a young technology with a multi-disciplinary research base that can change focus with lightning speed.

To counter this problem, the UK's universities of Southampton, Edinburgh and Manchester (represented by OMII-UK, of which I am a part) and the National Grid Service began the ENGAGE project.

The goal was to create a picture of the computational needs of the various research communities through a series of interviews that would include everyone from old hands to new users. Information culled from over 50 research groups led to the project's latest phase: the funding of 14 projects that could, among other things, help researchers to improve cancer treatment and to understand climate change.

Chris Brown, ENGAGE's original leader, said that ENGAGE's goal was to include the views of established grid users, researchers who were only contemplating distributed computing, and even those who knew nothing about it but whose research was suited to the technology. The last group was the hardest to reach; to contact these new users, Brown relied on a viral campaign: "We started locally and then asked each interviewee for recommendations of who to talk to next." This strategy led to 53 interviews across the country, including everyone from performing artists to physicists.

Image courtesy ENGAGE

Getting the pulse of the community

Hundreds of hours of recorded interviews were assessed by a team from OMII-UK and the NGS. The result was a picture of the "e-research" requirements in the UK.

Once the team had the big picture, they could focus on who was doing work that could benefit most from the resources of distributed computing, and help them along with technologies developed from a variety of ENGAGE-funded projects.

Their uses are widespread: the Aladin2 project, for example, will enable a simple, fast-running model of the Earth's climate system to be created and made available to a diverse research community. (Editor's note: This project builds on the GENI project, covered in iSGTW's 18 February 2009 issue, which constructs a climate model that could be used over long timeframes.) The Aladin2 software has already found a market with training workshops for PhD students and other researchers, and in master's-level teaching units at the Universities of East Anglia and Bristol.

The work of 14 research groups has been selected so far. They cover number-crunching applications conventionally associated with e-research, such as crystallography - but also things such as the image-processing of ancient documents. All of the software generated is open-source.

By building a picture of the needs of the research community, ENGAGE eliminates the risks in second-guessing users' needs, and ensures that researchers get what they want. The final part of the project is now underway; it will see the release of new software been tailor-made for the research community.

-Simon Hettrick, OMII-UK (s.hettrick@omii.ac.uk)

For more on the grid and climate change, see the 7 January 2009 issue of iSGTW

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