Growing Knowledge: the Digital Revolution in Research

Checking out an e-research tool using touchscreen at the British Library's Growing Knowledge exhibition

On Monday 13 December, I travelled to London with University of Leicester Research Forum Facilitator Emma Kimberley to participate in an evaluation session of Growing Knowledge, the British Library’s research project into the changing methods of research due to the digital revolution. The evaluation took place in the room used to display this research (which is in progress). The room was set up with some of the best technology available — a Microsoft Surface, a desktop computer with a very large touchscreen, and computers with multiple screens for better productivity.

We were introduced to a number of online tools designed to facilitate in very innovative ways the following categorised research activities: ‘collaboration and authorship’, ‘data collection’, dissemination and discussion’, ‘search’, ‘store, archive & present’, and ‘visualisation’. We were asked to have a go with the tools most interesting to us, and then two researchers asked us for feedback.

There were two tools which immediately stood out as having a clear function, achieving something with the current technology and connectivity which could not have otherwise been done as easily or even at all. The first was the Microsoft Audio Video Indexing System (MAVIS), a software system using speech recognition technology to allow searches of audio and video files. Imagine the benefit to a researcher of English language, history, or any number of fields, who can now take these transcriptions, and search for specific phrases of interest, taking a fraction of the time it would have taken previously to watch or listen to the originals.

The other tool which I found outstanding was Galaxy Zoo, which concisely defines its function as “citizen scientists classifying galaxies.” It was immediately easy to use this tool. A photo of an unclassified galaxy (having been imaged with the telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey) is displayed, and the user is asked, “Is the galaxy smooth and rounded with no sign of a disk?” and is offered two simple drawings, one depicting a smooth galaxy, and the other depicting one with a disc formation. The user clicks on the one most closely matching the galaxy. And the user is then asked another question, further refining the classification of the galaxy. “Citizens” therefore take part in the work of classifying the million photographed galaxies. This work has been going on since 2007, and the Galaxy Zoo researchers are satisfied that the citizen classifications are as good as those done by professional astronomers.

I'm standing next to the display of the Twitter activity monitor for San Francisco

It is clear that some research methods continue to be practiced in the same way for years, even though there are technological tools which can speed up the process or enable necessary collaboration which is otherwise too expensive or impossible to arrange. Anyone involved in the various aspects and topics of research would do well to check the Growing Knowledge site, have a look at the various new research tools available now and on the horizon, and take part in the evaluations so as to help shape the future of research.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

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