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Professionals with high-tech resources support social science research at ASU


December 07, 2007

Geocoding, national surveys, focus groups and Web collaboration portals are among the fee-based research services being used by faculty members and the public at ASU’s Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), an on-campus, state-of-the-art research facility.

Staffed by experienced professionals who understand academic research goals, the institute is organized around three core research service areas: Survey Research and Analysis Services, Research Technology Services, and Geographic Information System (GIS) Services.

It was established in 2005 in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We built a social science institute for the new American university; we are here for faculty and also for the community, demonstrating an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Linda Lederman, dean of the college’s Division of Social Sciences and director of the institute.

“The college understood the need of its faculty members when it created this institute,” Lederman says.

Its purpose is research driven, notes Alan Artibise, executive dean of the college, and the architect of the institute who continues to serve as its executive director.

“It’s not common to have a broad based institute focusing on the social sciences. Our motive is to make sure the research produced by ASU faculty is the absolute best that it can be,” Artibise says.

The institute’s three core service areas were built with that audience in mind – faculty members conducting funded research and applying for new grants.

From mapping to modeling
The GIS Services group in the institute provides services that range from simple to complex: from assisting a researcher with making a cartographically correct map for a publication to modeling air quality. Researchers have the opportunity to use the technology of GIS and remote sensing software for capturing, storing, analyzing and managing data that are spatially referenced to the Earth. The group uses leading software applications – ESRI, Map Server, Google™ and ERDAS – to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional mapping visualizations.

With expertise in spatial networks, modeling in raster and vector environments, database management, geostatistics, and diverse cartographic representational abilities, GIS Services provides the necessary skills and software programs to complete a variety of research goals.

“We serve the ASU researcher and community by assisting to find new ways of manipulating and visualizing data in a spatial context,” says Jana Hutchins, manager of GIS Services.

A recent project illustrates her point. Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change used the GIS Services to contextualize paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental evidence related to the origins of modern humans in South Africa. A first for archaeology, GIS Services created a three-dimensional video representation of an early site and its remains. The representation of the paleoscape and cave at Pinnacle Point in South Africa allows researchers to compare data in virtual ways not possible without the technology, Hutchins says.

“Our group is a repository of more than 30 years of experience working with geographic data,” she notes. “We provide researchers with the tools they need to visualize and analyze their data in ways they haven’t been able to before.”

Full-service survey research center
Another area of the institute – Survey Research and Analysis Services – provides customized survey research. Research designs are tailored to the individual needs of the researcher or client, explains professor Jess Alberts, associate director for research development at the institute.

A staff of professionals is available to conduct quantitative and qualitative survey research that includes Web, mail, telephone and face-to-face surveys, as well as focus groups.

“We customize research that speaks specifically to our clients’ goals, and advise them on the different methods they can utilize,” says Pamela Hunter, manager of Survey Research and Analysis Services.

With a cutting-edge focus group and observation suite, the institute’s facilities also offer a 17-station telephone interviewing facility with computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) capability and silent monitoring.

The survey group conducted the Phoenix Area Social Survey, a multi-modal survey of 40 neighborhoods in the Phoenix metropolitan area that were surveyed on the relationships between people and the natural environment. Results showed that communities form rapidly, despite the high rate of migration, social diversity and flux in the Phoenix area.

“The institute helps researchers answer community based questions, for example, environmental issues, population issues and expendable resources, hopefully resulting in solutions that make our communities better places to live,” says Lederman.

Technology research for today’s world
“In many cases the limiting factor in research projects and proposals is technical ability,” says Phil Puleo, manager of Research Technology Services at the institute. “We partner with researchers to not only provide back-end technical support but also help them develop their research projects around the latest technologies available, creating new avenues of scientific investigation that weren’t available before.”

The Research Technology Services division focuses on fostering collaboration and encouraging greater productivity by allowing researchers to leverage the latest information technology tools and concepts. The group provides an array of services including Web collaboration portals, Web application development, database design, systems integration and technology consulting.

In addition to its Web and data service offerings, the group supports a 17-station computer assisted research laboratory. The lab provides a multifunctional, technologically advanced facility designed to accommodate a broad range of research experiments, learning scenarios and commercial projects. It serves as a flexible platform for research projects, with workstations that can be configured to individual specifications with custom applications. Areas of support include decision making, social phenomena, software beta testing and Web interface design assessment.

In collaboration with GIS Services, Research Technology Services developed an innovative and highly customized SharePoint collaboration portal for Marean and his international research team. The site includes a custom image commenting Web application and online interactive databases. This portal allows about 25 scientists from around the world to work together on the same sets of evidence from the South Africa site.

This portal connects geographically isolated researchers to each other and projects data in a rich, collaborative virtual environment that greatly outperforms simple document exchange via e-mail. Researchers instead use a central, safely guarded repository for documents, shared calendar items, task lists, contact lists and wikis. This Web platform offers a central collaboration point for most research projects since no special software is required and the platform is easily accessible from around the world.

“Creating a new collaborative site is almost as easy as a couple of clicks because the technology is already highly developed. It’s a really efficient way to display your research,” says Puleo. “And, the research can be instantly available to the public or others by creating customized public portals.”

He adds that ASU “delivers the technology for the research of today’s world. We are at the forefront of that, providing one place where cutting-edge technology and expertise can be used over and over again.”

Transdisciplinary research services
The three core areas work together seamlessly, trading services internally on numerous projects. Because the institute does not focus on one dedicated topic alone, the ability to cross pollinate ideas is rewarding.

“It’s unique that all of these services are together under one institute,” says Lederman. “We provide the kind of excellence and access to faculty and community members that foster transdisciplinary research.”

Artibise notes: “We have a group at ASU that does this everyday and at the highest possible standards. The institute plays a fundamental role in increasing the capacity of researchers at ASU and ensures the work research faculty complete will have the impact it should.”

“Faculty members can take advantage of any combination of services to fulfill their research needs,” says Lederman. “The innovative use of technology for research is what ties our very interesting units together. And, I think that’s a very special service at ASU.”

The Institute for Social Science Research is housed in more than 10,000 square feet of office and laboratory research space in ASU’s Lattie Coor Hall. Additional information is online at issrweb.asu.edu.

Erica Velasco, erica.valesco@asu.edu
(480) 965-1156
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences