Browser extension with a library collection and crowdsourced knowledge crystals show what we can achieve with open science

Browser extension with a library collection and crowdsourced knowledge crystals show what we can achieve with open science

Fifty-five participants, fifteen teams and a few days' time to figure out how to promote open science using technological solutions or concepts. That's what the WIDE – Open Source Science challenge is all about. The weekend was intense. Teams used every minute available for fine-tuning their solutions, which was clear when it was time to present the developed ideas: even though everyone had the same datasets and APIs available, the resulting ideas were versatile. The key was that participants had very different backgrounds and skills: there were researchers, coders, students and others interested in open science and its promotion.

The WIDE challenge consisted of a multidisciplinary concept-creating challenge and a more technical code-based challenge. The winner of the multidisciplinary challenge was a knowledge crystal, a website that offers editable scientific information to researchers, politicians and citizens. The team responsible for developing the knowledge crystal website was Juha-Pekka Finnilä, Kaisa Haverinen, Jouni Tuomisto and Teemu Ropponen. The winner of the technical solution was a browser extension that helps users to find literary works on the search service. Developers of the browser extension included Yazan Al Halabi, Steve Nebo and Akangbe Samuel.

Crowdsourced knowledge for solving social problems

A knowledge crystal is a website that strives to answer a specific research question. Knowledge crystals have a standard format: a question and an answer with reasoning that is solely based on crowdsourced information. The idea has been under development in the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) for several years, to especially solve difficult environmental health issues. The idea of crowdsourcing is to utilize a community's know-how for a specific, clearly defined task. The basis of the WIDE competition task was to find ways to expand this operating model into other areas of society.

– The purpose of the knowledge crystal site is to produce valid information about societally significant issues. The topic can be anything. Knowledge crystals are best for situations where information is scattered or there are extreme opinions, since a knowledge crystal is a way to reach a wider understanding, say members of the development team.

The team members have different backgrounds but open science brought them together to develop this idea. Tuomisto is a leading researcher at THL and a specialist in environmental health. Haverinen is a qualified special needs teacher, but she has ten years' experience of doing research in teacher education for her doctoral thesis and working as a project researcher. Both are also members of Open Knowledge Finland (OKFI). Ropponen is an Executive Director at OKFI, and Finnilä is an IT educator. Tuomisto and Ropponen had already formed the team before the competition. Haverinen and Finnilä applied for the challenge by themselves and happened to find the team one week before the hackathon.

It was a quick decision to further develop knowledge crystals for the hackathon.

– Jouni had just published a piece in Helsingin Sanomat about knowledge crystals and received a lot of positive feedback. Teemu figured out that we could go in to the hackathon to come up with ideas for developing the model. Our goals matched the event's closely, so it was tempting to go and present the idea specifically to this audience, says the team.

Finnilä, Haverinen, Tuomisto and Ropponen presenting their solution.

Relevant literature with the help of a browser extension

Nebo, Al Halabi and Samuel, the winners of the technical challenge, are all software developers. They code together in their free time and meet weekly to discuss new technologies and develop something new. The group decided to take part in the challenge after they got excited about open data and the opportunity to develop something useful using open data.

– We all come from different backgrounds and different continents even. We try to take advantage of these different experiences to create something useful. Maybe this was also the thing that made us create a winnable solution for the hackhaton, says the team.

They decided to create a browser extension that provides a "bookstore effect" for the user by offering shelf after shelf of more information about interesting subjects.

– We wanted to create a browser extension that sits on your browser and automatically scans the web page you are currently using. The extension uses the page content to intelligently suggest books for you based on the books available in the Finnish Library [].

The solution makes work easier for anyone using the application, as they don't need to visit the library website to search for the books they need; the browser extension performs the search for the user. The extension increases the user's knowledge about an interesting topic, reduces the time spent searching for literary works and encourages people to read more.

– We felt that it is better to be proactive and actively suggest books to people to read rather than wait for them to search those themselves. We believe that when people automatically see the book titles they get more inspired to read, says the team describing the idea behind their solution.

Al Halabi, Nebo and Samuel demonstrating their browser extension.

The future is in open science

Both teams are committed to developing their solution, and they already have some plans for the future.

The developers of the browser extension aim to publish it for public use. The team's dream is that knowledge and interesting books could be just one click away.

The knowledge crystal team is also developing their solution further:

– We have started writing up instructions for contributors. We need volunteer experts and decision-makers to produce and use information cultivated with knowledge crystals, as the crystals' functionality and quality depend on the people working on them. Hopefully, practical examples in the future will convince people that this is an impactful operating model and that it can produce better science and societal decisions.

Both winning teams are also very passionate about open science. In the future, open information produced and processed cooperatively will be the way to create good information that can be used to develop increasingly innovative solutions.

– If science was invented now, it would be open. But many practices have been inherited down from olden times when it was impossible to produce and distribute scientific information openly. As technology developed, we continued doing the same thing using electronic devices, instead of adopting open and flexible crowdsourcing processes that follow the principles of science. We need to make the shift now, says the team that developed the knowledge crystal.

The thoughts of Al Halabi, Nebo and Samuel are along the same lines:

– Open data is very important for us. We believe that the intelligence of the crowd is a great asset when it comes to combining data in order to create new solutions. The variety of unique experiences of general public is something very special compared to the experiences of institutions. Institutions are creating much data and it will be a great benefit for society to everyone have access to it and possibility to combine it in interesting ways – just as we did with our solution.


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Pictures: Pinja Ahola / CSC


Published originally 20.12.2018.

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Pinja Ahola