I wrote this recently, not as a blog post, but for another purpose. I figured I'd post it here like I do everything else.
Re•search: noun. Investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts, revision of accepted theories or laws in the light of new facts, or practical application of such new or revised theories or laws.
The last part of that definition has always been the chief motivator for me in my research — practical application. While all research seeks to discover universal truths and deeper meaning, I strongly believe that researchers have a responsibility to contribute to society in other tangible ways as well.
Just as Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1439 made literary works accessible to everyone, the Internet is likewise speeding up the propagation of knowledge now and will continue to do so in the decades to come. We are on the brink of a cultural revolution where ideas, prototypes, discussion and research know no boundaries of location or time. The Free Software Movement is promoting users' freedom to understand and explore computer programs. The Creative Commons project encourages authors, scientists, artists and educators to distribute their creations under licenses that foster the sharing of ideas, encourage discussion, engender a culture of openness, and speed up innovation. This provides enormous opportunities for researchers to collaborate in real-time across institutions, countries and continents, and to serve the community by disseminating their research results via public blogs, videos, slides, prototypes and designs.
As a researcher in Human-Computer Interaction at the Dept. of Computer Science at Virginia Tech, I have developed several tools and prototypes that would be of benefit not just to researchers but also to computer users. It is by studying their habits that I designed these tools — to them, I owe these tools. I work in the area of Personal Information Management (PIM), and study how users access and manage information such as files, calendars, email messages, contacts and bookmarks on multiple devices. I release all such tools and software to the world at my web site under licenses that permit anyone to inspect the source code, build upon it, and benefit from it.
In the process of my research, I developed a program to access Google Calendar which now has over 25,000 users. A calendar converter program I wrote is used by an average of more than 200 users per day. During Sustainability Week 2008 at Virginia Tech, I released a Blacksburg Transit Schedule application for cell phones to encourage Blacksburg citizens to take the bus instead of driving. It is used by about 300 users every month and growing.
In the spirit of working on real products that are used by real people, I interned at Google three times during my Ph.D. (2005, 2006, 2007.) In 2007, my project enabled users of Google Book Search to clip personalized content from books and embed that into their own web site or blog. This enables teachers to excerpt from literary classics for their class home page, for literature scholars to debate the nuances of texts, and for commentators to dissect parts of books. My intern work was covered by several news outlets, chief among them, at Google's Corporate Blog.
Academia encourages published work—publish or perish, they say—while original contributions such as new ideas and untested directions are undervalued in the traditional ways of evaluating research. The Internet changes that too. Several times when I have come up with ideas that may or may not be viable research projects, I have written about them on my blog. The public scrutiny and invaluable feedback I've received made it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. My advisor has always been supportive of those ideas that were encouraging research directions: the latest among them resulted in a paper that has been nominated for the ACM SIGCHI Student Research Competition 2009.
An area that I have recently been concerned about is the open publication of raw data sets. I perform human experiments which are reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for ethical compliance. There is inherent tension between the privacy implications of human experiments and the Open Science dream of being able to publish all experimental data publicly so that others may analyze it in novel ways. I plan to investigate the ethical, moral and legal responsibilities of such an endeavor, recognizing that we as researchers owe two allegiances: to our experiment participants and to the scientific community, in that order.
I am happy to be a researcher at a time in our history when competitive collaboration trumps closed confidentiality. Science and innovation can only progress faster when information is freely shared among researchers, scholars and citizens.