Unlocking the Secrets of Darwinian Research at Cambridge University

It's always pleasing when the work of education establishments is held up as a shining example of best practice use of technology.

And it was pleasing last month, at the Windows Server 2008 launch event, that there was a fascinating insight into the way that one of the research teams at Cambridge University is using technology to unlock information from data originally collected 150 years ago. Researchers knew that Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge, Professor J.S. Henslow, had been studying variation since 1821 and he'd actively trained Darwin from 1829 to 1831 to study variation—before Darwin ever set foot on the Beagle. Using Microsoft database software, the research team analysed the Cambridge Herbarium.

The University team were involved in using the software when it was still in beta, via the Microsoft Community Technology Preview (CTP) programme. The researchers at Cambridge successfully developed a database that used the new spatial data types, and it wasn’t just the database that was important - the team wanted to visualise this data on a map, which they did by creating a 'mash up' - linking data from the database with Microsoft Virtual Earth.

Mark Whitehorn, Research Associate, University of Cambridge, is the group’s database specialist, and his view was

FirstquotesIn theory, we could have plotted the points by hand on a map, but to answer just one of our complex questions would have taken days of work. We wanted to ask questions and get the answers back in real time. The analysis we’ve already done with this software would have been impossible without the spatial data types and has already produced some very interesting Endquotesfindings.

Professor John Parker, Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Leader of the Research Group, says:

FirstquotesWe’ve always known that the collection was centred on Cambridge. But, we were very keen to understand the dynamics of the collection in more detail.

Once we had the data in spatial data types, it was easy to plot the cumulative number of plants against distance from the site of the original Botanic Garden in Cambridge. When we did so, we were surprised to see that the result was clearly biphasic. In other words, there were two phases in the collection with an intersection at around 23 kilometres. We rapidly realised—and equestrian experts were able to confirm—that this represents a reasonable distance for a rider of a horse to travel out and back in a day, with some time set aside for collecting. In other words, the pattern of collection was heavily dependent on horsepower as the prevailing traEndquotesnsport system of the day.

There is much more about this case study on the worldwide Microsoft case studies website.

(The written case study is a little less easy to understand than the video I saw - mainly because the words 'biphasic', 'herbarium' & 'spatial' benefit from more context! The video's not yet been released, but I'm hoping to get a link to it soon)

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