While academics are intimately familiar with the idea of article abstracts, these summaries don’t always touch on all of the nuances of a published piece of research and still require a fair amount of mental effort to sort through. What if there was a way to automate this process? In the tech space, ‘context’ is being billed as the new form of search - algorithms that take into consideration data like user preferences, location, time and other factors to serve up information that is highly targeted to the individual. MindMeld is one of an emerging class of applications that listens in on conference calls to deliver related articles, video and images, which can be swiped to the center of an iPhone or iPad screen to instantly share with anyone else on the line to spark new discussions.
Regardless of how well a piece of technology gets to know its user, there are some detractors that are wary of filter bubbles - the tendency for algorithms to show people information that often avoids different or dissenting points of view. These contrary opinions can be an essential tool when trying to reach a deeper understanding of a subject. To avoid this potential pitfall, researchers might instead choose to set up their own series of notifications and filters. IFTTT (If This Then That) is a digital programming tool that helps people “Put the internet to work for you,” in the words of the company. The service offers a simple interface that helps people connect two or more web services or Wi-Fi enabled products together to perform a set of actions. Users can choose from a menu of pre-programmed ‘recipes’ or create their own, automating processes like receiving alerts when relevant information is shared through social media channels or instantly adding relevant articles to Evernote.
No matter how digitally savvy a researcher is, there is invariably going to be analog time spent taking notes and gathering data. To keep pace with a culture that needs information to be instantly available, searchable and shareable, academics will need tools to bridge the off to online divide. The Livescribe 3 is a Wi-Fi enabled pen that works in conjunction with a companion app to sync handwritten notes to the cloud. Though still in the early days, the software offers some intelligent functionality, helping streamline the process of archiving information and locating it after the fact. If the company were ever to pair the pen with a contextual assistant in the future, the technology becomes even more compelling.
As important as it is for research teams to have shared access to research and other documents from any location to ensure that every member is one the same page, it’s sometimes necessary to get people in the same room to truly advance the goals of a project. To help foster this collaborative process amongst its scientists, Penn State has installed a 7’ X 13’ visualization wall and an array of interactive tools at its Millennium Science Complex. The school hopes the ability to view and discuss data in a more social setting will contribute to new insights and discoveries.
In the end, it’s these game-changing breakthroughs that researchers are after, changing people’s perceptions about the world or establishing novel solutions to longstanding problems. By providing the proper set of tools to help them get to that point, institutions and organizations are working to advance the goals of these digital scholars. To support this radical thinking, these same entities can’t be afraid of breaking free from established processes and experimenting with entirely new methodologies. The results will be exciting to see.
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