The University Record, January 25, 1993

NSF awards $3.9 million to develop ‘collaboratory’

By Sally Pobojewski
News and Information Services

A multidisciplinary team of U-M researchers has been awarded $3.9 million in National Science Foundation funding over five years to develop a new type of computer and communications technology called a research “collaboratory.”

A combination of “collaboration” and “laboratory,” the U-M project will merge advanced NeXT computer systems with new software designed specifically to meet the needs of nine international atmospheric scientists. Located at five different institutions in two countries, all the researchers use data from observational instruments at the Sondrestrom Upper Atmospheric Research Facility in Sondre Stromfjord, Greenland.

When completed, the collaboratory will allow these scientists to plan and conduct shared experiments using instruments at the Greenland facility, jointly examine results, cooperate in data analysis and share manuscript preparation—all without leaving their individual laboratories in Michigan, California, Maryland and Denmark.

The multidisciplinary project will merge the expertise of U-M computer scientists, who have designed advanced distributed (multi-user) computing systems, with that of U-M behavioral scientists, who study how people interact with computers in collaborative situations.

“Our immediate goal is to allow the atmospheric scientists to operate their instruments and collaborate on data analysis without having to spend the winter in Greenland,” says Daniel E. Atkins, dean of the School of Information and Library Studies and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who will direct the collaboratory’s development.

“The long-range goal is to develop technology that allows people to work as effectively with computers in groups as they now do individually,” explains Gary Olson, professor of psychology. “If the collaboratory is successful, it could make a noticeable difference in the way scientists work and help improve their productivity.”

While the prototype system will be customized to the needs of one group of users, much of the technology will transfer easily to other scientific applications, Atkins says.

NSF also is funding development of collaboratory systems at the University of Arizona and the University of North Carolina.

Other U-M faculty participating in the project include C. Robert Clauer, associate research scientist; Atul Prakash, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Lynn Conway, associate dean for instruction and instructional technology, College of Engineering; Thomas A. Finholt, assistant professor of psychology; Timothy L. Killeen, professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences; Rick Niciejewski, assistant research scientist; and Terry E. Weymouth, associate research scientist.