Category Archives: tech

Hey Google Scholar, where is my citation visualization tool?

I have been a bit latent about writing here in the past couple weeks, but it’s not for lack of motivation. Since commencement a few weeks ago, I’ve spent just about every day flinging myself at the wall that is my thesis, trying to get it to crack. My thesis is by far top priority –I have less than 3 weeks to finish up — so I have a hard time letting myself work on anything else. But maybe changing gears for a little bit will be helpful; and this post won’t be entirely off topic.

In doing research for my thesis, I have had more than a few run-ins with Google’s academic paper search tool, Google Scholar. While it is both familiar (in interface) and fast, it lacks some more advanced search features that it seems like any researcher would inevitably want; sort by date comes to mind, and maybe the ability to comment on papers (like Google provides for businesses).

Thinking bigger, what I would really like to see from Google Scholar is a citation visualization tool that would allow a researcher to visually follow citations, jumping from paper to paper. This would make it much easier to get up to speed on a given topic. It is tedious to keep track of the connections between a group of papers by hand, only made worse by the various ways different authors reference their citations in papers (First letter of last name of each author, followed by last 2 digits of the publishing year? How about just a citation number!). Citation information already exists, so visualize it!

Google’s lack of this kind of tool for wading through research papers is perhaps made even more surprising when you consider that the original idea behind Google’s search algorithm draws heavily from a technique called citation analysis, which is all about considering the connections between academic papers.

It doesn’t actually surprise me that Google doesn’t provide this kind of visualization, they tend to be stronger with back-end problems than front-end, user experience type projects. But what they could (and should!) do is provide a Google Scholar API. In fact, considering the ridiculous amount of APIs they do provide, it’s a wonder one doesn’t exist! There is even a thread in the Google API issue tracker requesting a Google Scholar API that has been active since September 2008.

To be fair, the task of keeping track of academic research papers is made painful by the various paywalls that many papers sit behind, and perhaps Google isn’t confident enough in their data set (or, the data set is too inconsistent) to provide a robust API. Still, this application would not only be very cool, but could also make research in general more efficient.

There are already tools that basically do what I’ve described (e.g. paperscope for astrophysics papers) from smaller sets of papers. So once Google finally does provide a Google Scholar API to its awesome collection of many papers across many topics, it won’t be long before someone creates a citation visualization tool from it, and probably plenty of other cool mashups too.

P.S. Hey Google, feel free to hire me to work on this :)

Android versus iOS

My cell phone contract is (finally) up in a month or two, so it’s time to decide: Android or iPhone? Both are miles ahead of my current crappy phone (inbox full at 130 texts? really?), but which is the better fit for me?

About a year ago, I was pretty confident that my next phone would be an Android. In addition to being a Google product (they do alot of things pretty well), Android provided a lot of different choices for phone hardware, so I could pretty much choose the features I wanted (hard keyboard!). Stir in the ultra-customizable Android OS, its rapidly growing app selection,  and a few choices of wireless carrier, and Android is sitting pretty in my book.

Then, a challenger appeared!

I must have been good this past year, because Santa brought his A game; spearheaded by a brand new iPod Touch 4G. Playing with my new toy has given me a new appreciation for apps, from email, to calorie trackers, to social media. Of course many apps are available for both Android and iOS, but something about my iPod Touch started to sway me.

I remember being impressed with the iPod’s packaging; a small, efficiently packed, hard plastic case. No big cardboard box, no set of manuals. That’s just one-time stuff though, so what about the daily experience? Apple publishes a pretty all-encompassing set of iOS Human Interface Guidelines that app developers (are supposed to) follow. The idea is to nudge developers towards creating a rich user experience that is consistent between apps.

While Apple does let some corner-cutting slide (if they didn’t, there would hardly be any apps), their guidelines do a pretty good job of creating a user experience where all of the apps seem to work in about the same fashion, even though they all have different developers. In short, I feel comfy in Apple-land.

So where does that leave me with Android? Android answers Apple with its own pretty strong list of User Interface Guidelines, but the Android marketplace doesn’t impose the same sort of approval process as Apple’s app store, so there are a lot more low quality apps floating around, raising the noise floor. Of course, none of this matters once you’ve found the apps you are going to use, and most of them probably come from quality developers who care about user experience.

All this time spent using my iPod has also caused me to change my tune when it comes to the plethora of hardware choices for Android; I’ve developed a taste for high quality hardware. This one isn’t quite as big a deal, but in general (i.e. also with laptops and other electronics) it drives me nuts how many awful devices are released between the few good devices. I really like what Apple does, providing relatively few, but high quality, choices of hardware.

Still, my only experiences with Android have come from briefly stealing friends’ phones to play around, and my feeling of comfort with iOS is something that has come with time. Most likely, the same thing would happen with Android. Also, any complaints that I’ve had about Android breaking from the interface guidelines are echoed with jailbroken iOS devices.

My final decision will likely come down to how awesome the iPhone 5 sounds versus what’s available for Android hardware, and how desperate I am for hardware for testing my Android app(s). Or maybe my employer will make this decision for me :).