Competition gets students to think in 'apps'

Elsevier WebApp Concept Design Competition

- November 22, 2011

The winning team (left to right): Raheleh Makki, Axel Soto, Ozge Yeloglu. (Danny Abriel photo)
The winning team (left to right): Raheleh Makki, Axel Soto, Ozge Yeloglu. (Danny Abriel photo)

From your web browser to your mobile device, everyone is thinking in 'apps' these days.

On October 25, students from across Dalhousie gathered to make their pitches for prospective web applications for international scholastic publisher, Elsevier. The occasion was the Elsevier WebApp Concept Design Competition, hosted by the School of Information Management.

An innovative and groundbreaking way for students to showcase their programming skills and help contribute to more efficient scholastic research methods, the competition was the brainchild of Anatoliy Gruzd, assistant professor and head of the Social Media Lab.

"This competition format is very unique" says Dr. Gruzd. "Elsevier usually holds these ‘hackathons,’ where people are given 24 hours to develop an application, but they are not really given time to implement it. Our idea was to use teams of people and give them a month. This way there was more collaboration and creativity, people could bounce ideas off of one another."

In small teams of two-to-four people, students were asked to develop a web application for Elsevier's immense, searchable database of journals, articles and other academic data.

"With the advent of social networking and integrated multimedia, we are perpetually multitasking, we are interacting with the online world in rapidly changing ways" notes Dr. Gruzd, "Elsevier knows this, and that's why they were so keen to work with us on this project."

Rethinking search

Students were encouraged to analyze and postulate the problems with the traditional search model and how they, as academics, would approach those problems.

"Originally, I conceived it only as a competition for Library and Information Studies, as we pride ourselves at being experts on organizing information" laughs Dr. Gruzd, "But I thought, why not tap into the collective intellect? How would other people see it? So we decided to make it campus-wide."

With over 19 entries from programs ranging from computer science to engineering to health informatics, participants weren’t actually building their applications, but had to detail the overall design and function of the application, as well as demonstrate who exactly the application would benefit and in what ways it would be relevent to Elsevier and the public.

Axel Soto, Ozge Yeloglu and Raheleh Makki—all from computer science—emerged from the dense array of intricate and extensive applications to nab first place with their geometrically monikered application, "BlobCube."

"We received an email from Dr. Gruzd about the competition and thought it sounded like fun; we had no idea what we would design at first" says Ms. Yeloglu, a PhD student. "We eventually realized our research areas were very similar to the aims of the project, so we just started to think about what would work for us.”

The power of visual information

Their application visualizes search results in two distinct ways. At the document level, it shows you the degree of relevance a set of chosen keywords has to an article – a "Blob" visualization.

“The other aspect, the "Cube," lets you visualize many different features of the retrieved documents such as the type of document, the subject area, its recency or rank... all on a 3D scatter plot," says Axel Soto, a postdoctoral student. "It is both simple and powerful; a holistic versus and individual view."

For the next phase of the competition, the top three teams will get a chance to pursue the realization and implementation of their application.

"We wanted to give people a chance to actually develop their application,” says Dr. Gruzd of the competition's programming phase. “There is a big personal satisfaction in seeing your application utilized by people. We are giving each winning team a $1,000 stipend to pursue their project, if they have the time."

With the programming portion expected to get into full swing at the end of the fall semester, Dr. Soto and the rest of the BlobCube group are working to figure out if they can put in the time.

"We had no idea it was going to be anything other than a proposal!" says Dr. Soto. "It would be great to see it come to life. I think we're all very dedicated and I'm sure we will inevitably have it developed, but I'm not sure if we have the time right now."


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