DIY The New Age LIMS

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It would be nice if we could just always talk about computing, DIY, the promise of Open Source, etc. Sometimes we just need to take a look at what is going on around us.

Growing Dismay

Recent budget problems in Illinois have caused the state to send I-O-Us to lottery winners instead of money.

This kind of stuff isn't at all new. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, when asked about his reasons for scrubbing a planned underground railway between New Jersey and New York summed it up this way: "I canceled it. I mean, listen, the bottom line is I don't have the money...I literally don't have it."

Years of improper budgeting and 'kicking the can' down the road for the next administration, the next council, and the next group of people seems to eventually come to a head. This is what we call being 'unsustainable': when a system or process cannot support the demands placed upon it for the long term. As you can see, history has shown us that it happens with budgets. What people do not tell you is that this kind of thing can happen with any and every type of system (budgeting is a kind of system). LIMS even have the word 'system' as a part of the acronym and, as you will see, are subject to similar pressures.

Crowdsourcing Science

It is not all gloom and doom. Computing is here to save the day (well, sort of). We are quickly entering an age of citizen science where interested third parties, for no money, perform actions necessary for research. In EPA Region 2 citizens are, "monitor[ing] the physical (e.g., flow, temperature, electrical conductivity) biological (e.g., macroinvertebrate community, bacteria, chlorophyll-a) and chemical characteristics ( e.g. nutrients, metals) of water bodies and underlying sediments, make visual observations of habitat or assess the abundance and diversity of living creatures in the aquatic environment."

This is great from a monitoring standpoint, but the citizenry can do much more, particularly because according to the New York Daily News the average American spends a whopping five hours a day watching television.

According to the Pew Research Center the key to getting the public interested in helping you with your citizen science projects is, wait for it, to use social media and talk to them.

Now for the DIY Informatics Part

Scientific topics are, well, hard to understand. We want to provide public talks and symposiums -- that is how you learned it, through lectures and such -- but the public has about an eight second attention span so what we need is to divide up participation into smaller, more digestible chunks. We also need to more tightly control what our citizen researchers are providing to the experiment as a whole.

Here's a sample of what typical initiatives look like for a surface water quality study: "For this project, each group in the laboratory must produce its own report; however, you may choose to team with other groups in the laboratory to produce a more comprehensive assessment of local water quality..." Now, this study appears to be directed at school children but for the public that is probably the correct reading level one should target. If a high school kid can understand the instructions it is a good bet that the average citizen can follow them.

Enter DIY laboratory informatics over the world wide web. The problem is that following the directions for sample collection becomes tedious. Consider filling out the Visual Survey Form. Ouch. And it doesn't do much to provide any feedback. After a while participants are likely to lose interest because they don't feel like they are a part of the overall process -- they are restricted to just collecting data.

Information systems can do much better, providing interactive graphics, community forums, and the like to do a far better job, limit errors, and to teach new participants. All this can be done while reserving the crux of your day for commercial work.

Freely available, easy to install/administer open source laboratory information management systems architected with non-professional scientists in mind will boost participation in the new crowdsource science era. These are systems that have to serve two masters -- the scientist and the public at large. Presently our systems are vying for the paying public -- the government/company laboratories -- when the real frontier really isn't there at all. Developing long term and sustainable strategies for management of dwindling and increasingly volatile resources means developing systems that interface with the public itself.

Wrap-Up, the Big Tie-In

Development, sale, and maintenance of laboratory information management systems are subject to the same problems of sustainability as other systems. A major economic drawback has been the specialized nature of these systems and the small relative size of the target market. The biggest vendors in laboratory informatics target the biggest/richest corporations with the aim of becoming financially secure. Their systems have optimization of the target user in mind -- a professional scientist working toward the aims of an organization normally engaged in commerce or public safety. In other words, people that are paid to use the system by the organizations that employ them.

Over time these systems have become models for all such systems of the like that are built afterward. However, this progression is wrong. The future of laboratory informatics computing is likely going to involve increased participation from individuals that are not even scientists. Like state budgets the quality of existing systems has dwindled and become increasingly volatile. This is due to many factors, but primarily it is the result of such a narrow focus.

DIY laboratory informatics not only generates interest among casual science enthusiasts but interrupts the design process and stands it on its head. We stop looking only to the established paradigms for system design and start looking elsewhere. When the target market changes from paid, professional scientists concerned with completing their work in the most expedient manner to casual/citizen scientists fascinated with the subject matter that are deeply concerned with the outcomes we are talking about a completely different animal. DIY LIMS seeks to address those types of initiatives while effectively 'rebooting' and reinvigorating areas where the traditional models of design, development, deployment, and maintenance fell short.

Today involvement in DIY LIMS will seem trivial but it will fast become a necessity as participation breaks away from limiting budgets and narrow user stereotypes. Science can no longer be done solely in ivory towers and far away laboratories. We are entering uncharted territory. Welcome to the new age of laboratory informatics.

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Citation: DIY The New Age LIMS. (2015). Retrieved Thu Mar 23 00:18:32 2017, from;iid=readMore;go=1440947463