Using web technologies for research

At the NSF IGERT 2010 Project Meeting this week I will be giving a set of 5 minute talks on how Blogs, Twitter, Wikis, and GoogleDocs can be used in research. Below are some of the links and examples I used in the talk along with short descriptions of how these technologies can be used.


My lab, CUPS, maintains a blog where we post everything from news about the lab to detailed reports from conferences we go to. The blog lets us post information others might be interested in even if it isn’t necessarily a paper worthy event.

Blogs are also an excellent way to learn about new information related to your area. Since there can be many blogs to track I use an RSS feed aggregater, such as Google Reader, to subscribe and keep track of multiple blogs.

Finally, blogs can be an excellent way to collect information about your area in one place where you and others can find it again. I use my personal blog,, to keep track of news articles related to my research. Also when I solve a particularly intricate technological problem that was impeding my research I post the solution to my blog for others to use.


Twitter is an excellent way to aggregate and disseminate information quickly.  Good examples are: CyLab, Electronic Freedom Frontier, and Wombat Security. You can easily create a Twitter account for a lab or research group and post interesting and exiting news about your lab.

Twitter is an excellent way to keep track of what others are doing. For example I have a list of security and privacy twitter feeds that I follow. Everyone on the list posts interesting things about security and privacy so I monitor their feeds for important information.

Twitter is also an excellent way to connect with people online during conferences. In Twitter anything that starts with a # symbol is called a tag. Using Twitter it is easy to search for tags. For example searching for #igert on Twitter brings up a list of all the Twitter posts tagged as #igert.


Wikis are a type of website that let people easily create linked content. Wikis are extremely useful for research for keeping track of information. Basically, using a wiki, you can setup your own Wikipedia that is dedicated to just your research. There are many different types of wikis, most wikis let you create web pages like what you see on Wikipedia but each type of wiki is special in its own way.  Here are some popular ones:

  • MediaWiki – Originally designed to support Wikipedia, one of the more popular wiki softwares.
  • Trac – Wiki software designed to support people who are all working the same project or code base. It has an issue tracking system built in which lets people submit bug reports and mark bugs as fixed. It also integrates with SVN (version tracking) installations.
  • TikiWiki – Fairly standard wiki software with lots of features and plug-ins.

Not all Wikis are public like Wikipedia. My lab manages a wiki that is only visible to members of the lab that we use to coordinate shared resources such as laptops and archive information, such as study procedures, for latter use.

Some good wiki examples:

Google Docs

Google Docs is an online document editing site that lets you create and edit Document, Presentation, Spreadsheet, Form and Drawings online through Google’s interface. What is really nice about GoogleDocs is that you can create one document online and let other people see and edit it.

Google Docs is an extremely useful tool for working with collaborators in other parts of the world. You can easily create a shared document and edit it together at the same time. GoogleDocs also supports a chat functionality so you can talk to the other person while you are both working on the same document.

Google Docs is also very useful for running surveys or setting up registration forms. I’ve created an example form where you can rate this presentation and tell me about how you use these types of technology in your research.

The Boucher Bill

Issues of behavioral advertising and online collection of personally identifiable information have been major issues of late. I previously blogged about behavioral advertising and the different ways online advertisers can track you as you move around the internet. But behavioral advertisers aren’t the only source of concern.

Large social networking sites have access to a bewildering amount of personally identifiable and potentially very private data. Sure they have privacy policies in which they claim to respect your privacy but most of the policies also state that the company can change their privacy policy at any time and the new policy immediately applies to all exiting data they have on you. The EFF recently posted a nice time lapse of Facebook’s privacy policy changes from 2005 to 2010 and the New York times recently showed that the current Facebook privacy policy is longer than the US Constitution.   Amongst its many clauses is the fact that other websites are automatically given access to your data when you use Facebook Connect, developers can infinitely store your data, and any applications your friends use have the right to access and store your data too.

The Boucher Bill is an attempt by law makers to force organizations who collect data online and off to provide informed consent to their consumers. The information law group has an excellent breakdown of the Boucher Bill which is definitely worth a read.

Some major points from the bill:

  • Organizations need to provide privacy policies but they can assume that users who use the service have implicitly consented to the policy (opt-out).
  • The bill requires companies to have users opt-in to major privacy policy changes.
  • Express affirmative consent (opt-in) must be obtained before personal data can be sold to other organizations.
  • Organizations can share personally identifiable information with parents and affiliates without notifying users provided the information is not used for marketing purposes.
  • Organizations must provide the policy and get express consent (opt-in) from customers before collecting any sensitive information such as medial information.
  • Consumers must opt-in to any sharing of location information.
  • Organizations cannot collect information about consumer’s browsing across site behavior unless they obtain express consent from the consumer before collecting information (0pt-in).
  • Organizations collecting information from less than 5,000 people per year are exempt.

Update: The CDT has a set of comments on the Boucher Bill.