This is one in a series of articles reporting on progress being made by the inaugural recipients of Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology (LIFT) support.
Innovation doesn't always start from scratch. In fact, it often stems from new ways of thinking about and applying existing technologies. Here's an example: researchers involved in the Data Flow Infrastructure Initiative (DFII) at The University of Texas at Austin are demonstrating that “everything old is new again” by exploring new ways to use barcode technology in scientific projects.
In today's world it is hard to imagine shopping for groceries or maintaining inventories without the ease of scanning systems that read and process barcoded information. Scanning technologies now ubiquitous in retail and other industries have roots in the 1940s when the first efforts were made to automate and manage grocery product information at checkout and later in the 1950s when the railroad industry explored ways to identify and track individual railcars automatically. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and―believe it or not ― innovative use of barcoding is just beginning to have an impact in the field of scientific research.
While the technology itself is well-tested and flexible, it has not been embraced in a significant way by the academic research community. Efforts are underway, however, to change that through the Data Flow Infrastructure Initiative (DFII), a project funded by the Longhorn Innovation Fund for Technology (LIFT). By shortening the cycle from data collection to research publication, DFII is examining how the use of handheld devices with integrated barcode scanners can enhance both research productivity and information access.
Suzanne Pierce, Research Assistant Professor and Roy Rich, Research Associate, both with the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, Jackson School of Geosciences, are enthusiastic in their vision of how existing inventory system technologies―coupled with handheld and mobile devices―can improve the efficiency, productivity, automation and integrity of data collection in the field and in the lab. “Researchers lose valuable time when they depend on old methods,” Pierce observes. “Having students collect information in the field then re-enter the data once they are back in the lab just doesn't make sense when technology provides viable alternatives.” Rich adds “The expense and inefficiency of double handling data is especially troublesome when you consider large quantities of data and current fiscal constraints.”
In preparation for proof-of-concept trials, the first months of the DFII project were spent in reviewing different handheld devices, considering options to aid in data collection such as GPS and built-in cameras, getting feedback from hands-on testing, and administering a competitive bids process. Eighteen Nautiz X5 ruggedized PDAs with touchscreen, barcode scanner, GPS and 3G cell are now in hand, the Pendragon software for creating handheld data collection forms is installed, and a durable, industrial grade thermal transfer printer is scheduled to be delivered within the next several weeks. Reed Malin, Graduate Research Assistant, who oversaw much of the equipment acquisition process, says “Now, we are ready to go!”
Though still early in the project, the team expects DFII to benefit the University in a number of ways. As mentioned, reduction in cost through streamlining the data collection and analysis process will be immediate for projects that implement the new system. By increasing the amount of digital research data, long-term archiving and public access (now required of projects funded by the National Science Foundation) can be improved. Data quality will be better since there will be less data entry error. The technology is also expected to facilitate data dissemination throughout the global research community and open new avenues for inquiry-based exercises in the classroom.
Recognition for DFII's innovative approach to data collection and management has come quickly. Based on her work with LIFT, Pierce received an award through The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs newly launched Fulbright Regional Network for Applied Research (NEXUS) Program. The program seeks to create collaborative networks in the Western Hemisphere in the areas of science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainable energy. In commenting on the award, Piece said “LIFT is a cornerstone element in the proposed cyber-infrastructure project that we hope will include linking physical system simulations with data delivery from handheld devices.” In tandem with their Chilean collaborators, Pierce and Rich hope the handheld devices can also contribute to “citizen science and science-based tourism” in the El Tatio Geothermal Field in the Andes.
Over the remaining months of the project, Pierce and Rich, with a team of researchers, graduate assistants and undergraduate researchers, will be introducing these handheld systems to the University community through a diverse set of pilot projects. The pilots, designed to demonstrate potential uses of the DFII infrastructure, include:
- Ecological Data and Measurements, under the supervision of Christine Hawkes, Assistant Professor and Tim Keitt, Associate Professor, College of Natural Sciences. This pilot will enable students to use handheld devices in existing field and research labs. Students, including undergraduates, will use the newly acquired handheld devices and software to create forms and establish protocols for ecological sampling. The project is set to deploy in March 2011.
- Isotope Geochemistry Lab Establishment under Dan Breecker, Assistant Professor, Jackson School of Geosciences. This pilot will give students the opportunity to track and analyze field samples by automatically logging chronological and technical information with the devices, as well as to participate in protocol development. The project will launch in April 2011.
- Groundtruthing Decision Support, under Pierce's leadership, will use handheld technology to collect baseline scientific data and survey data from the El Tatio Geothermal Field located in Chile. The information gathered will be used for decision support analysis by key stakeholders and to create virtual observatories. The team is interested in finding out if they will be able to transfer field data via satellite from one of the remotest places on earth to research scientists at the University. Malin will be testing the system when he goes to El Tatio in May 2011.
Each of the pilot projects requires training on the new equipment, development of written protocols and completion of any LIFT specific documentation.
In addition, a device “lending library” will be established to encourage researchers and graduate students to experiment with the new system and licenses for the forms software will also be available. Those who use the devices to collect data will be asked to contribute to a DFII wiki so that others can learn from their experience. The team is strongly committed to helping researchers and students in the UT Austin community find novel applications for the technology and reports that “now that the equipment is here, word is getting out” about this innovative way to collect and manage research data.
Members of the Team
DFII team members Suzanne Pierce, Roy Rich and Reed Malin are exploring new ways to use barcoding and handheld devices in scientific projects.