Research intelligence - Damming the 'data deluge'

A workshop aims to bring design to bear on increasingly complex scientific information. Neha Popat reports

October 7, 2010

Rapid advances in the technology and methods used in research have undoubtedly yielded great benefits for scientists and society at large.

But the new techniques have also resulted in a surge in both the volume and complexity of the information researchers are expected to analyse.

The challenges of coping with this "data deluge" have been recognised by the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. They are working in tandem to address the lack of "visualisation" techniques available to present biological data in a user-friendly way.

David McAllister, the strategy and policy manager at the BBSRC, said visualisation was not just about how information is presented on web pages or other electronic media.

"Rather, it is about how researchers can handle and present their data in ways in which new and better analyses can take place. For example, spreadsheets are a good way to store large amounts of numerical data, but are less good as tools for spotting a particular pattern or trend," he said.

To examine the problem, a workshop to be held jointly by the two research councils next month, titled The Challenges of Visualising Biological Data, will bring biologists together with researchers in other disciplines to discuss the difficulties they face and provide insights into how large and complex datasets can be "fully exploited".

"The insights and expertise from computational and information sciences, as well as the creative arts and design, are essential for this collaboration to succeed," Dr McAllister said. "Other disciplines such as the philosophy of science and information science - which looks at how people perceive data and interact with information - can also bring different perspectives that may be useful when developing novel visualisation approaches."

He added that the workshop would also include presentations from data-visualisation experts from other disciplines that deal with large datasets, such as the environmental and physical sciences. "However, the kinds of data that biosciences generate are different to those from other disciplines, so a bespoke approach may be required," he said.

Universal challenge

The issues at stake are just as relevant to researchers overseas as they are to those in the UK.

Reinhard Schneider, team leader for computational biology at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, agreed that combining the experiences and expertise of researchers from different disciplines would prove productive.

Dr Schneider said he had witnessed rapid growth in the level of computational power available to biologists, which had brought both opportunities and challenges. But he added that he had also found it was sometimes difficult for scientists to adopt new and creative ways of tackling problems, having become accustomed to a particular form of reasoning in their academic careers.

With biologists now dealing with such "heterogeneous sets of information", there was a "very unclear knowledge network" in the field, he said.

Alison Prendiville, deputy director of the Centre for Competitive Creative Design at the University of the Arts London, said: "Scientists are incredibly creative people: however, they may currently find it difficult to tap into that creativity.

"The complexity of their data sets means there are limits to the speed with which they can engage with them. But working with designers will provide scientists with a language to articulate their ideas and make them more accessible and visually appetising."

The BBSRC and AHRC workshop in particular is targeted at researchers in the humanities, creative arts, information science and biologists working with large datasets in fields such as systems biology, synthetic biology and metabolic engineering. Participants from industry will also be involved.

A report will be produced following the event, which will be used by the two councils to develop their future strategies for data-intensive research.

However, Dr McAllister denied that the aim of the workshop was to develop a format in which researchers might in future be required to submit their datasets to the BBSRC.

He said its primary aim was not to inform the research councils.

"It is more about providing an opportunity for researchers across the biological, computational and creative disciplines to explore novel ways of obtaining maximum benefit from their research, whether by exploiting their biological data or providing new avenues for the use of IT and creative tools," he said.

neha.popat@tsleducation.com.

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