Data as Source of Innovations
Big data is a powerful tool for changing society. By synthesizing different kinds of data, you can gain fresh insights, which, in turn, gives rise to new innovations. Academic and governmental data is particularly useful to changemakers, but opening data isn’t as simple as it may sound. To understand what it takes to build and operate open data systems and how people are using them for greater good, we decided to take a closer look at two different open data projects. We recently visited the National Institute for Materials Science to hear about one of these projects, which is designed to help manufacturers.
Ask an Expert: Mikiko Tanifuji, Director, Data Platform Center, National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS)
Ms. Tanifuji leads NIMS’s effort to develop an open platform system for materials science data. Before joining NIMS in 2015, she served as the Executive Assistant to the director of the Publication Center for Pure and Applied Physics, where she published English-language online physics journals, helped the center adopt advanced digital technologies of XML publishing and data standards in physics, worked to foster the community of applied physics science, medical and technology professionals, and laid the foundation for J-Stage, Japan’s largest platform for academic e-journals. At NIMS, she has worked on projects involving electronic publishing and the development of XML databases and schema, as well as a bibliographical information service program that uses XML data in materials science. She has a master’s degree in international studies and is a member of the Japan Society of Applied Physics. She has served as a member of the Science Council of Japan’s Young Academy, and the Cabinet’s Open Science Committee.
Ask an Expert: Kenichiro Fukushima, CEO, iPublishing
iPublishing, the Kanazawa-based smartphone apps business that Mr. Fukushima founded in 2009, is known for developing wide-ranging medical and gaming apps, as well as municipal apps that cater to the needs of the historic city’s residents. He has been an ardent promotor of civic technology, pushing for the open data movement in Japan since its early days. In 2013, he launched Code for Kanazawa, a nonprofit that serves as the country’s first “Code For” community. After studying at Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, he started his career at Oki Electric Industry Group’s software company, where he conducted R&D of speech recognition and language processing technologies and core and web systems, and also worked in product development and sales. Appointed by the Cabinet as its “open data evangelist,” Mr. Fukushima serves as an advisor for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ local data digitalization initiative.
The Unlikely inspiration for the materials you touch everyday
Materials science is a cornerstone of the sort of innovations that improve the quality of our modern lives. From smart phones to automobiles, just about any product that people now use on a daily basis takes advantage of one or more of the latest technologies derived from materials science.
But “opening” materials science data to further accelerate innovations in materials development is anything but easy, especially when it comes to gathering the required data from researchers. Ms. Mikiko Tanifuji, the director of the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS)’s Materials Data Platform Center, says that this is partly due to the fact that materials scientists are known to prefer working alone on their research projects. As NIMS is Japan’s center of materials science R&D, three years ago it decided to establish its own data platform center (DPFC). The purpose of the DPFC was to aggregate academic research data on physical and materials science, and to make these data available to all researchers. The strategy to accomplish this was to develop the right data description methods and a data-sharing platform.
According to Ms. Tanifuji, “Materials science is different from earth science or genomics in that, globally, researchers often find it difficult to share their data with each other as natural course. They usually conduct their research independently — so much so, that we could call many of their projects ‘one-person science’. It’s a monumental task to gather data from many individual labs, and then to organize it systemically and make it accessible in a manner that’s easy for other researchers to utilize.”
Adding to the challenge is the need to create the metadata that labs must produce in order to make their data sharable, which allows other researchers to use it.
“Generating metadata can be extremely time-consuming for labs, and may not be practical or make good sense, even if the end product is beneficial for research,” Ms. Tanifuji says. “My job is to develop ways to promote open science from within a national research institute. NIMS has a history of developing and maintaining high quality databases, MatNavi. We also serve a repository of materials science research papers and data to public. At the present, we are trying to become the next generation repository in comply with open science by adopting the concept of ‘open’, and developing databases that work well for data-driven research.”
Ms. Tanifuji and her team spent two years designing a metadata model and data schema, which make possible the description of data contents and context. This is critically important in increasing the usefulness of data produced from research.
“Because preparing metadata can be labor-intensive for labs, researchers made it a point to discuss what’s doable. It is important to find a standardized metadata model and its format for each study area in a given field, and develop tools to assist researchers as required. To advance open science, it’s essential to fill the gap between the raw data that comes from research and the data that’s formatted for use by others,” Ms. Tanifuji says. “The research communities in the U.S. and European countries are good at filling these gaps. They also work with the private sector to standardize data to promote sharing. As for the usefulness of our description method, the jury is still out. We hope our method is practical and can be applied by researchers to analyze their data and further enhance their studies. We hope that our system will accelerate corporate innovation, and we have committed ourselves to continuously make ‘open’ better for science.”
Open data connects labs with industries
Materials informatics – the field of study that harnesses the power of data science and AI to discover novel materials that could be created – rapidly advanced following U.S. President Barack Obama’s “materials genome initiative” launched in 2011. Countries around the world have been paying close attention to this movement, as they try to determine just how effective data-driven R&D really is in accelerating innovations. NIMS has been promoting use of open data, though some of its industry-academia-government R&D projects blend open data with “closed” strategies.
“To find out how opening data changed the world, NIMS organized the “MI2I Consortium,” a data community comprised of 90 private sector companies, in 2015 and has since regularly held seminars in which these companies share how they use NIMS’ open data and what the end results look like,” said Ms. Tanifuji.
She noted that many participants want to know whom they can contact to obtain information about certain materials. Some of them would also ask how to standardize their companies’ internal data.
“We answer all the questions and provide advice,” Ms. Tanifuji said of the consortium. “And the consortium isn’t limited to those 90 companies. The door is open to anyone who wishes to participate.”
When civic-tech generates profits
Private sector’s interest in open data also continues to grow. Kenichiro Fukushima, CEO of iPublishing, who began his career as an IT researcher, is one of Japan’s early adopters of the open data movement, and his name is now synonymous with civic technology, or “civic-tech.”
“Civic-tech refers to the use of technologies by citizens to create solutions for social problems or to improve their communities. Civic-tech, in essence, is a civic activism, and its objective isn’t profit-making. But your solution to a social problem may be to launch a business that generates employment – and in that case you’d be making profits while creating a big social impact,” Mr. Fukushima said.
To explain civic-tech, Mr. Fukushima said, he often uses the Adopt-a-Hydrant app as an example.
“A Boston-based nonprofit called Code for America developed the app to recruit volunteers to keep fire hydrants clear of snow in winter. Boston has lots of snow, and hydrants can get buried in it. They mapped out all the fire hydrants and asked people to claim responsibility for certain hydrants and shovel them out when it snows. Volunteers were allowed to give their hydrants names of their choices.”
Mr. Fukushima said he was amazed at how Code for America used IT technology as a direct solution for social problems.
“I thought we engineers can directly apply our skills to do good. Something like Code for America would also excite programmers. So, I started Code for Kanazawa and launched various initiatives for the entire Ishikawa prefecture,” he said.
That was 2013. They first developed the Trash Collection Calendar app to make the information digitally available to all.
“We learned through this project that you don’t clearly see how service programs like trash collection can be improved upon and where the issues are, until you digitally format the program information and make it open,” Mr. Fukushima said. “Governments and municipalities are using taxpayers’ money to provide various services and programs. So, it’s important that they identify problems right away as they arise. European countries and the U.S. have been using pretty good about using IT technologies to need to be able to easily spot problems as they occur.
Democratizing Kutani ware art
Mr. Fukushima has already seen open data inspire ideas for many businesses as well. For example, the Kutani Porcelain Art Museum’s decision to open the patterns of some of its treasured Kutani ware – the proud heritage art of Ishikawa prefecture – led to the manufacturing of paper plates that looked like real, luxurious Kutani ware, he said.
“The open patterns then continued to spark business ideas. There was this builder who began incorporating the Kutani patterns into interior designs. They would collaborate with homeowners to use the patterns for the wallpaper, lampshades and other items. They’ve created a traditional Japanese home brand out of it.”
Many museums around the world have taken it upon themselves to open the data of their cultural heritage collections. Among well-known projects is Europeana, a digital platform for public access to books, music, artwork and other items from thousands of European archives, museums and libraries. The public’s overwhelmingly positive response to open data has encouraged the institutions to share more digitally, prompting even those that were initially hesitant about making a move to organize events that feature their open data and to sell goods based on the data.
“The energy that drives the movement stems from people’s desire to disseminate their local cultural heritage. Once someone makes a creative use of data, others will join in and come up with even more innovative uses of it. This positive chain reaction enables the data’s possibility to grow,” Mr. Fukushima said.
“I completely agree with Mr. Fukushima on that positive cycle of action,” Ms. Tanifuji said. “When something becomes “open,” people take the concept behind that something and begin applying to so many things in different ways. That’s how it is these days,” she said.
“That’s exactly right. ‘Monozukuri,’ or making things, was once an activity for only select people with access to specialized knowledge and equipment. Things like 3D printers are democratizing monozukuri,” Mr. Fukushima said. “Making and providing things is easier than ever. I think this trend will help shape the future of open data as well.”
Open data for better tomorrow
Mr. Fukushima’s experience with open data is slowly but surely becoming something in demand. He said he is often invited to speak or write about open data and has had opportunities to work with experts in various professional fields to produce open data together. More recently, Mr. Fukushima became the organizer of a series of roundtable discussions with city officials and local businesses about open data needs in the community.
“If the Kanazawa city gets proactive about opening its data, and if a business uses it to create a unique product – or even just a prototype – that becomes the talk of the town, then the entire country will start doing the same,” Mr. Fukushima said. “Civic-tech is now being practiced across Japan. We want to tap into all the data and associated technologies to create a system that makes it easier to build a better tomorrow.”
Ms. Tanifuji noted that open data is changing the lab’s culture.
“Data enables you to confirm what you thought is right to be actually true. You may discover something that you’ve always overlooked, thanks to data. In other words, data adds depth to ‘one-person science.’ When different pieces of digital information merge, it creates a palpable impact. We have more chances to experience that these days,” Ms. Tanifuji said. “I hope materials science data becomes more widely available through apps and services, and that we get to feel how the data is directly connected with our lives. Civic engagement like that benefits the country. Mr. Fukushima’s project is great, because he’s digitalizing and compiling Kanazawa’s data, and that’s helping the city learn something new about itself. Whether you call it science or not, the positive chain reaction is what we need to build Japan’s future.”
Interviewer: Rue Ikeya
Photographs: Toshiyuki Kono (article); Yuji Iijima (column)
Released on: Nov. 10, 2020 (The Japanese version released on Nov. 11, 2019)