Why better storage management could benefit humanity

Universities and hospitals are home to the lost tribes of academia - mysterious cultures from whom we could learn so much, if only the barriers could be broken down. Nick Booth meets Figshare, a company that wants to do just that

When people talk about public sector IT, they rarely mention the insane politics of some publicly funded organisations.

There are all kinds of fiefdoms, empires and bizarre sects involved in bitter, inter-departmental wars in local government, universities and hospitals.

At one large central London museum, when someone had a bright idea for making the academics more accessible to the public, grown men were found under their desks, sobbing. The distraught professors weren’t even being asked to talk to the public – just to be seen.

And yet, and yet, these magnificent creatures could tell us so much about ourselves. There are oceans of fascinating information available, but most of it lies buried and out of reach. Never mind big data, the vast amount of research data locked up in academia is infinitely more valuable.

Big data is essentially marketing information and of questionable use to mankind. It’s usually some trite study, commissioned by Big Company A to Small Agency B with the tacit instruction to create a result that dovetails perfectly with its advertising messages. With a commercial imperative like that, the outcome is always going to be pre-determined, so most commercial research is worthless. And yet, that’s what gets all the publicity.

Academic research is unbiased and follows all the right scientific principles. It has no pre-determined outcome and the sample sizes make the results statistically significant. But academics aren’t great at publicising their work.

Even worse than that (as I discovered when interviewing a mobile technology boffin at my local university) the politics of academia are insane – and the IT systems are even worse.

This is why many universities are spending millions on ambitious server farms for storing all the documents, tables, graphs and 3D representations of genomes that they produce. Server farms they don’t need. They would be far better off pooling their resources and sharing their information.

That was the rationale of Dr Mark Hahnel when he packed up academic research and founded Figshare for Institutions, a cloud-based software service that promises to allow universities to scale up and scale down their networks for academic research.

As a cheap alternative to building server farms, it could save academia millions, he says. It gives academics easy to use tools, which will enable them to open up their research data to much wider audiences

Academics struggle to organise their research outputs. Figshare integrates into their existing workflow so data management becomes much easier. The main benefit is that the research data no longer becomes stored and forgotten (and in many cases lost) in the chaos of academic IT systems. By contrast, the storage strategy for many universities seems to be ‘say silo, wave goodbye’.

Hahnel says he can save universities money by obviating the need for building server farms, getting them far more gigabytes of storage for their buck and, more importantly, creating an easier system for sharing information between research bodies. Information about drug research can be cross referenced between universities all around the world and the cause of medicine could be advanced. If only the departmental wars could be stopped.

This was last published in September 2013

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