Web 2.0 as applied to chemical engineering

I'm in Philadelphia this week for the AIChE Annual Meeting, which is its usual collection of networking and technical sessions about all things engineering.  (I am participating on a panel on the future of chemical engineering education on Thursday.)  There was a session today on the application of Web 2.0 ideas in chemical engineering.

The opening talk by Scott Butner of PNNL gave an overview of the standard Web 2.0 ideas and concepts that I won't repeat.  And he also gave the best discussion of how and where Web 2.0 might apply in chemical engineering.  These applications include

  • Collaborative knowledge management, whether in local teams, in the entire enterprise or beyond the walls of the organization.  Just imagine being able to gather experts on arcane technical topics without having to be all in one room.  Or even not-so-arcane topics, but bringing to bear the collective knowledge and experience of many more people. 
  • Building upon communities of interest.
  • Increasing access to rich data sources.  As more and more data become available with associated metadata, we can use some of the mash-up tools to recombine that data and visualize it in new ways.  For example, EPA data about waste streams drawn on a map or recombined with other relevant data.
  • Educational opportunities.  He didn't give many details, beyond mentioning that there was a YouTube video contest.  There are opportunities for sharing videos and presentations, but that is barely Web2.0, other than the sharing-across-boundaries aspect.

Beyond these topics, I could imagine a few other ideas, particularly in light of the other talks on pharmaHUB, virtual organizations, building ontologies, and value network analysis.

  • Making engineering calculations available online.  Of course, this has been happening for a while.  The Web2.0 twist is that we should make the calculations available by web services as well as a user interface.  And you could pull data from many potential sources, not just from a data file sitting on your local machine.  And then publish the results as its own model for further re-use, or as an educational module.
  • On the other end, provide API's for doing the data analysis, whether that data comes from a physical system or from a model of that system. Again, these things exist, but they are frequently locked into closed systems.
  • Outside of engineering calculations, there is the basic need of getting chemical engineers more engaged in these online communities.  I've never been excited by the level of participation and interest from the larger chemical engineering community.

One of the discussion points was around "what is truth" in the context of user generated content and information that can be changed by anyone.  This is a familiar worry in the context of wikis, but it also has implications for the academic peer review process.  If one can publish and get nearly instantaneous feedback - both supportive and negative - why would you want to submit to the traditional blind review process that takes months at its best.  Even more important is the idea of disseminating your ideas quickly with those people who are truly interested in what you are studying.

1 Comment(s)

Jason said:

Excellent! These are great ideas: applicable to your disciplines as well as to others. I'm hoping for these ideas to further solidify in the civil engineering world as well.

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