4 ways the rise of mobile apps for science will change the way research is done

Posted by Rory on July 6th, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

The rise of apps for science

Last week I wrote a post discussing whether apps will overtake websites in scientific research as they now have done for general usage.  I later discovered that the previous day Antony Williams and Sean Ekins had launched Scientific Mobile Applications, a “community resource for developers and users to share information about the various science apps that are available”.  There is a useful presentation on Slideshare discussing the rise of mobile apps for science and providing additional background to the establishment of Scientific Mobile Applications, which is laid out as a editable wiki.

I wanted to mention that before going on, as I promised to do last week, to discuss how the rise of apps in scientific research is likely to change the way research is done.  First, it’s a nice coincidence that my post and the launch of Scientific Mobile Applications happened on almost the same day!   Second, this coincidence affirms the theme that both Antony and Sean, and I, are stressing, namely the coming onset of a slew of apps for science.  Third, I would like to thank Antony and Sean for creating what has the potential to become a very useful resource.

Now, onto the main topic — how the rise of apps in science is likely to impact the way science is done.  Here are a few changes that are likely to accompany the rise of apps for research — they are pretty fundamental.

Where you find resources

Currently you probably find new ‘resources’ — services, publications, people, tools, materials, etc., primarily through (a) Google, and (b) websites, e.g. PubMed, Mendeley, discipline-specific forums and databases, and possibly (c) social media like Twitter and Facebook.  As more and more apps for science become available, people will begin to spend more time looking for resources in a third ‘space’, namely appstores.  At first this may not seem like a big change since it will just feel like an additional  ‘resource space’.  But if science goes the way of general usage and apps overtake websites as the place where scientists spend a majority of their time online, then apps will become the primary place people go to find resources.  When they want to find a new resource their first instinct will be to look for it in the apps they are already using, and if they can’t find it there they will look next in the app store.  Apps will become the primary resource metaphor, and things that used to seem fundamental, like Google and websites, will be seen as just other apps.

Where you get information

The primacy of apps will also impact where you find information.  Currently people think of the  web as the window or portal through which you look or search for information generally, not just resources.    But if the interface to your mobile device has replaced your desktop as the screen you see most often in the lab or the office, then you will be looking at something like this:

When that happens, you are likely to organize your thinking about where to find a bit of information around which app will help you in the quickest and most effective way. And, as with resources, if you don’t have an app that is good at finding whatever it is you are looking for, your next step is likely, again, to be an app store where you can find one that is.

How you work

In future your research is likely to center around a series of apps. Already there are an increasing number of apps for consuming information related to research — for reading and for search.  But as data entry on tablets becomes easier, and more complex forms of data entry become possible, apps for producing and manipulating information will also proliferate, and hence you will find that you are actively ‘producing’ on apps as well as just consuming.  For example, you can currently find apps which allow you to read barcodes, and these can be applied in some cases to barcodes on inventory items used in the lab.  But in future you will be able to enter data into an app about particular samples, and that data entry will be quick and convenient.  So, you will be producing data through the app as well as consuming it.

How you share informaton

Since most of the information you consume and produce will be through an app, information that you share with others will also be through an app.   Since the ability to share with others, or with others who don’t have the app, is in many cases limited, this will lead to limitations on the ability to share data.

Next week: the implications, good and bad

So there are some of the changes the rise of apps in research are likely to stimulate. These changes have far reaching implications, some good and and some not so good. Next week I’ll take a look at those implications.





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