How to keep an online research journal — the tools are getting better!

Posted by Rory on December 1st, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

A dream app:  the online research journal

Would you like to have an online journal that gives you a snapshot of everything you were doing on a particular day, including research and related activity, like your thoughts on journal articles you were reading at the time, notes on conversations with others in the lab about experiments they were working on, etc.?  Would you like this journal to be available in a diary or calendar view?  Would you like the journal to sort out all the entries you made on a particular day and present them to you coherently without your having to do anything in terms of organization at the time of entering the information?

That’s the dream app that Kim Martin, at the University of Edinburgh, would like to see.  Andreas Johansson at  Lund University has a similar vision.  As Andreas says, “Sometimes it’s just easier to follow how your ideas evolved over time in this way.”

Three currently available approximations of the dream app

How far away are we from having that dream app?  Here are three apps, in ascending order of interest and relevance, that are available now and might be considered steps on the road to the dream app.

Facebook News Feed

Facebook has something — pretty primitive admittedly — along these lines already. Facebook News Feed is a constantly updating list of stories from people and Pages that you follow on Facebook.  Like the dream app, it captures everything, or rather everything of yours on Facebook (if you want it to; if not you have the ability to restrict what goes into News Feed) and presents it to you chronologically.  But it has no ability to differentiate on the basis of time, and hence is unable to present things to you in a diary or journal view.  And of course people don’t use Facebook for recording research, so the content of information it captures is not relevant.

Google Wave

Google Wave allows groups of people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and other things.  A wave is shared, so any participant can reply anywhere in the message and edit the content.  The wave can be played back so that any participant can see who said what and when.  So Wave actually has a lot of what the dream app would need.  Even better, it keeps the record of a group of people involved in a research project, not just an individual, and makes it possible to identify each contribution made by each individual.  It acts like a group journal or diary, focused on interactions rather than individuals.

What are Google Wave’s limitations?  It lacks a nice interface and doesn’t show you a diary or journal view. It is not particularly intuitive or easy to learn.  And most important, it’s been pulled by Google as an active app!  Nevertheless, Wave has been very useful in demonstrating the kinds of things that are possible in an online journal which is (a) focused on research rather than personal information, and (b) captures a group’s activities rather than just an individual’s.


The last of the three apps is Momento, an iPhone/iPod diary app for individuals. It allows you to write diary entries about what you are doing  on a given day. It also lets you tag friends (from your iPhone contact list), places, events, and add photos to these entries.  And it lets you import bits of information from services like Twitter, , Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Digg, and any RSS feed. The result is log of what you’re doing online.

Momento looks like a journal, which is broken down by days in descending order from the current day. You get a snapshot of any given day, including the most recent items (tweets, check-ins, etc). Clicking on any of these days takes you to a detail page which shows you all of your activity for that day.  There’s also a calendar view which allows you to go to any moment in the past. Clicking on a date will again take you to a specific day page with all of the info about what you did that day.

The dream app revisited

Although the dream online research journal does not yet exist, it’s clear from what is already available that its key elements would include:

  1. A detailed record of a group’s research interactions and documents
  2. The ability to recover contributions made by each individual, and when they were made
  3. Nicely presented diary and journal views

Why Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is not Google Wave — Scientists take note

Posted by Rory on November 24th, 2010 @ 11:47 am

Is Google ‘socially’ challenged?

A while back I wrote a post quoting Tom Coates, who said in an interview in Fortune,

“Google is very good at building these utility-type products — search, email, and messaging . . .  But what they lack is a sense of how people share and collaborate.”

The Fortune article goes on to say, “Coates’s point is that you don’t have friends on Google, you have contacts and tasks.  These services reflect an engineering culture that is all about utility, but one that makes it hard for the company to create something that’s friendly and social.”

Google Wave — the exception that proves the rule

It’s ironic that one Google product which was designed to be social, Google Wave, got pulled.   Google Wave was/is “equal parts conversation and document, and allows people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.”  Why did Google Wave not survive?  The facts that it was too hard to understand and use, and  ahead of its time may go part of the way to explaining the reason.  But that’s true of lots of early versions of products which later evolve into killer apps.  And Google Wave had a fervent following among early adopters.  To my mind, a more compelling explanation (from the Brisbane Times‘ Digihead) is that Google Wave “didn’t tie in with our existing forms of communication – it was an entirely separate world trying to start from scratch“.   In any event, the pulling of Google Wave can be seen as another failure on Google’s part to be ‘social’, albeit that in this case it failed notwithstanding the social intentions Google had for it.

Facebook’s Modern Messaging System — destined to succeed where Google Wave failed

Digihead argues that unlike Google Wave, Facebook’s Modern Messaging System is likely to succeed because

“Hundreds of millions of Facebook users will be quick to embrace [Facebook’s messaging system] because it will presumably integrate tightly into the familiar Facebook user experience.  They won’t need to go out of their way to use it, or wonder whether or not their friends are using it. [The messaging system] will complement our existing communications habits and gradually become more central without requiring us to completely abandon our old ways.”

But Facebook’s messaging system is not Google Wave reincarnated

Facebook is being very explicit in comparing its new messaging system to Google Wave.  In this video interview, Joel Seligstein, the engineering manager in charge of the messaging system, talks about how the two relate.  He says that Facebook’s messaging system contains some of the same  features as Google Wave.   He also notes that Google Wave was focused on interactions, whereas the messaging system is focused on people.  As my colleague Leigh Gordon pointed out, Joel does not mention the fact that  interactions were the collaborative features of Google Wave where the innovative, cutting edge and exciting features were included, and none of these exist in Facebook’s messaging system!

Two different kinds of innovation

So Facebook’s messaging system is innovative in adding a better messaging capability to an existing social platform, whereas Wave was a brave — perhaps too brave — attempt to make available a  new and improved platform for real time collaboration by bringing improved an improved ability to communicate around interactions.

Why scientists still need what Wave promised

How is this of interest to scientists?  Google Wave generated a fair bit of buzz among tech-friendly scientists, for example  this post from Cameron Neylon on using the Wave in research.  Cameron saw Wave as bringing

“three key things; proper collaborative documents which will encourage referring rather than cutting and pasting; proper version control for documents; and document automation through easy access to webservices. Commenting, version control and provenance, and making a cut and paste operation actually a fully functional and intelligent embed are key to building a framework for a web-native lab notebook. Wave delivers on these.”

Is Facebook’s messaging system going to act as a replacement for Wave for scientists, or indeed others who are collaborating?  Not really.  As I have discussed previously, scientists don’t use Facebook for research, for a variety of reasons including the fact that it does not provide support for structuring research data, and security concerns. Facebook’s messaging system isn’t going to change that.  So for the time being people are still going to use ‘non-social’ things like wikis and Google Docs — which let you share but not communicate — in their research.   And gradually they will turn to electronic lab notebooks, which are beginning to add to the ability to record and share research data the ability to communicate about it with simple messaging systems.

What scientists ultimately need is something like Google Wave that is designed from the start to support both sharing and communication.  Something like Google Wave, but not Google Wave, because scientists need three things in a collaborative research tool that Google Wave lacked:

  • A simple interface
  • Intuitive usability
  • The ability to add structure to the research record
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