Computer supports for research
Every business nowadays needs IT platforms to organize, manage and analyze its data. While companies have been using databases and tools to manage their business for decades, many research activities do not use these tools. For example, many museum archives are based on paper archives and only in some rare cases have digital tools that are obsolete and ineffective. A similar scenario can be found in biomedical research, where cutting-edge technologies are certainly used for the analysis of samples, but platforms for tracking the life cycle of such samples are almost completely lacking.
Over the years I have come across many of these realities. My biggest and longest experience has been at the Institute of Candiolo in Piedmont. This oncological center is certainly one of the best in Italy and the results obtained from the work of researchers are commendable. However, when I was contacted for a feasibility study back in 2011, I found myself in front of a reality that I never expected. In fact, although the tools for the analysis of biological samples were at the forefront, there was no computer platform that could help researchers to save the results obtained in a structured way.
A lot of information was written on “notebooks”, paper files that each researcher jealously guarded. The files produced by the tools were saved in shared folders whose name was totally arbitrary. In some cases, Excel sheets were created to get a general idea of the experiments. There existed, and is still used today, a platform that made it possible to save the location of samples in freezers. Unfortunately, this was not used by everyone and its content had become obsolete and very unreliable over the years.
After my feasibility study, I was commissioned to design and develop a platform to track the life cycle of the samples used by the institute’s research laboratories. After about a year of development, with the help of other young engineers, we put the Laboratory Assistant Suite (LAS) into production.
The LAS platform then assists researchers in various laboratory activities. Its modular architecture allows to manage different types of raw data (e.g. biological, molecular) and to track experimental data. Each module is built to handle specific activities or types of data, but is embedded in a larger and more uniform framework, allowing easy integration with other elements of the system. In addition, the data models and procedures integrated into the platform seek to comply with best practices and standards widely adopted by the research community at large. User interfaces are designed to be practical in hostile environments, where researchers should minimize their interactions with the system during data entry procedures (e.g., under sterile conditions). In addition, the platform supports the integration of different resources and helps to perform a variety of analyses to extract knowledge about cancer.
The system has evolved over the years to accommodate new experimental procedures and new types of data. Currently it is used both by the Candiolo Institute and by other international institutes in the framework of European projects. Here are some publications related to the platform
Another project that I have always developed to support research and scientific dissemination was PACOME (Palazzi Comunali del Mediterraneo). This project studies, with a comparative and interdisciplinary approach, the political and urban planning function of the buildings used as governmental headquarters for urban communities in the Mediterranean. It was born from the collaboration of various universities and researchers in different fields who shared the study of medieval buildings. The main partners are Avignon Université, the Politecnico di Torino and the University of Bergamo.
The French and Italian components of the international PACOME team are engaged in local research and technological innovation activities aimed at the construction of the Atlas of municipal buildings. It is a platform composed of interdisciplinary cards on individual buildings, with historical information, cartographic representations, surveys and 3D reconstructions, which aims to bring together, study, analyze and present to the public all the information useful to understand, from different points of view, the municipal buildings. Through the geo-localization of data, the buildings are presented within their spatial context; through the collection of homogeneous information it is intended to answer research questions that belong to several disciplines (the chronology of the diffusion of municipal buildings, architectural types, promoting institutions …).
The platform, currently a prototype, is therefore oriented to support researchers in cataloguing different aspects of medieval municipal buildings. Using the potential of MongoDB and developing interfaces adaptive to the context, the system allows to trace all the heterogeneous data of individual buildings and geo-reference them. In addition, a public site is offered where it is possible to view the listed buildings with some descriptions provided by the researchers. In this way the knowledge acquired can be disseminated to a wider audience. You can view the project at https://progettopacome.polito.it
Another project I worked on was the development of an Access database for the cataloguing of a collection of archaeological finds currently kept at the Museum of Oriental Art (MAO) in Turin. Although the Museum is equipped with a system for cataloguing the finds, this platform did not allow to save in a structured way some information of interest on the finds, such as the materials, the place of discovery and the restorations carried out. The technology used, which is certainly not the best on the market, was chosen to overcome some limitations of the project. In spite of this, it allowed the cataloguing of almost 2000 finds, whose data were then transferred to the official database of the museum.
A conference was also held downstream of the project on the occasion of the exhibition “On the banks of the Tigris. The Collections of the MAO from Seleucia and Coche”. During the conference my presentation explained how the use of new technologies and in particular of databases can allow to structure and organize the data of the archaeological finds with the aim of spreading culture more and more within everyone’s reach. You can download the poster of the conference here, while the slides of the speech are available at this link.