Brin, Big Data, and Filipino Literacy

2015 has seen staggering breakthroughs in science. From taking a first look at our icy neighbor Pluto to bringing genetic editing to the fore, discovering water in Mars and finding the Pentaquark, humanity has certainly taken some big leaps towards realizing what could have only been yesterday’s science fiction.

However, as a citizen of a struggling Southeast Asian country whose contemporary culture is a screaming bandwagon of primetime soap operas and western pop hullabaloos, I cannot help but think about what happened to my country’s scientific complex. When was the last time we saw some groundbreaking invention worth gawking at in the remote forests of Los Baños? What is the applied science department doing to fix the issue of scanty enrollees interested in and eventually running the chores in the field of science and technology (if there ever are any to begin with?) Last awesome thing probably known to all sixth graders is Agapito Flores’s invention of the fluorescent lamp, and I don’t even know if that lie still propagates with our outdated textbooks. Basically, the biggest question is: “Where are we, right now?”

I read Wired’s article about Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) and his efforts to get around the sneaky LKRR2 gene (that makes him more predisposed to develop the nasty Parkinson’s disease) the other day. Aside from busily working his muscles out to counter the possibility of developing the illness, the guy puts tremendous effort and funds to support Parkinson’s research. The article wove through Brin’s narrative to point out a very interesting matter: the reinvention of the scientific method.

The fact-based system that, in Wired founder Kevin Kelly’s words, “is [humanity’s] most potent invention” is facing a dramatic turn with the exponentially advancing progress in technology within the last decades. Needless to say, the internet and advancements in data storage are major forerunners of this scientific evolution: making collaboration among scientists more plausible and information access more viable. However, not even a century after we cracked the secret to the wonders of storage and virtual connection, data scientists are already putting forward a dilemma: an overwhelming amount of data. Following the good-ole Scientific Method, data collection proceeds after the synthesis of a hypothesis. This modern ‘exaflood’ of information can be overwhelming to the scientists as they scour and filter over information excess to get to literature that would make the connection. The new proposition is: what if we revamp the process and do it the other way around? That is, collect the data first and then find patterns and new algorithms afterwards?

Below is a comparison of the Traditional Model and the process used in Parkinson’s Genetics Alternative.

It is interesting to note how new information could be generated from a mass of noisy data and not just specific knowledge that answers a specific question from a specific hypothesis. We’re talking about a whole bank of feasibly useful facts that can potentially be utilized to produce more meaningful relationships. The possibilities are endless with collective brainpower in the route (and I wouldn’t even attempt to put AI in the equation).

The thing is, while the West, and as far as we all know, our more scientifically-minded Asian neighbors such as Japan and China are getting totally hyped up with all these nerdgasmic advancements, myself and I’m sure a lot of my anonymous comrades can only sit in envy as the pages of science fiction unfold within the pixels of our computer screens. With all the lag that we are caught in, not to mention being always at the bottom of science and mathematics literacy scale in the region, it’s a shame to even ask when you are stared back with blank eyes and condescending smirks because what the hell, didn’t you know that we won the Miss Universe title this year.

This piqued my interest enough to turn my inquiries to local research. Asking my previous mentor Mr. Jay Picardal, Ph.D. Biology from De LaSalle University and Assistant Professor of Biology at Cebu Normal University about how he gleans information to back up his local studies, the educator told me he gets the necessary information from local papers, owing to the lack of synchronized databases in the region. Four years ago, I remember how he told us to read related literature 6 months prior to actual research execution.

Seeking authority to comment on the matter is painstaking. That should be unsurprising for a country whose biggest problem is an acute case of bureaucracy. Taking this into consideration, I instead took my own curiosity online, expecting the DOST (Department of Science and Technology) VII website to give me decent updates as to their latest marches. What I found instead was a meager display of equipment bids and contracts. Navigating through the site, I clicked on Programs and projects, to which I was greeted with a clean pale blue slate with last update dated 16 May 2008; even the FAQ section is blank.

It was upsetting. Fortunately, the abomination didn’t extend on to the department’s main website. This one is certainly on the roll, with pages easily navigable, user-friendly, and information up to date. Still, it would have been more appreciable to find out that our side of the wing harbors the same activeness.

The site could provide a practical avenue for students and practicing professionals to connect, institutions and educators doing research, etc.

Having a central database for research documents would significantly aid researchers in the region. I scanned the web, hoping for the existence of a site that would provide an example for such and I was luckily not disappointed to find HERDIN (Health Research and Development Information Network), an online national health research repository providing quick access to more than 50000 citation and bibliographic information from both published and unpublished sources. Keying in search words would take you to a list of the related results, each leading to a page that provides primary information including the paper’s full abstract. The site also cites the physical location of the actual paper. There also includes downloadable papers in fulltext format. My hopes were revived.

Just going through HERDIN, I remembered about my college research stint and Academia, an online research paper platform that also doubles as a social site. It is helpful for academics. But of course, more people need to contribute to make it a relatively useful tool for local studies.

Looking at the general slate of things, maybe the whole new scientific method thing is not yet for us. With data that are still sitting idly in dusty library rooms waiting for eternity at their shot at digitization – if that would even dawn on them – it remains a far off dream. But that’s not the worst. We need the recognition of the problem to begin with and as far as I know, digitization is far from being the focus. Right now, it’s convincing kids to enroll into physics and biology and computer and engineering courses and actually do real science. Maybe when we’ve accomplished that, we’ll have a greater chance. Right now, we’re taking the long-hand. But Brin’s ideas are duly noted.


*I wrote this piece back in January and only got the time to publish it now. The hope is high for the new administration. Hope that also begs change for the education sector.



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