Researchers attempt to 'see the future' with new tool

Posted on 16th August 2012

How do we identify what issues are likely to become important in forthcoming years and understand the risks and opportunities that they might present?

This daunting challenge is being tackled by researchers at the European Centre, who have developed a tool that uses Internet search engines to seek out new and emerging trends in the field of environment & human health.

In a paper that will be presented to the 10th Conference on Advanced Information Technologies for Management in September, Dr Marco Palomino will showcase current research that aims to automate the labour intensive process of trying to find information about new trends and developments.

Failing the insight offered by a crystal ball, businesses and researchers commonly turn to the discipline of Horizon Scanning to uncover developing areas of interest. Formally, Horizon Scanning involves the systematic search for new trends, threats and opportunities that are likely to affect the evolution of a business or society. Informally, Horizon Scanning strives to give us as much warning as possible about what’s lying around the corner.

Along with his colleagues, Dr Palomino has devised a system that searches for information using key words relating to a particular area of interest. These keywords are submitted to several commercial Internet search engines to ensure that as many unique results as possible are captured by each search. So far so good but the tricky part of the analysis comes when attempting to reduce the countless articles and documents retrieved to a sensible (and useful) number.

To do this, the researchers use a technique based on the relevance and authority of an article’s source. This filtering process aims to limit the responses to those that only come from a recognised and reputable origin. One measure used to determine authority is based on the way that sites link to each other – with more authoritative sources having more links to them from other sites. So how does the system make sure that useful information is not discarded? Dr Palomino concedes that this is perhaps the trickiest part of the research,

“Using Internet searches to source information is nothing new, but what we’re trying to do is develop a tool that can automate the human-intensive process of detecting and summarising patterns that are emerging in the literature we find. There’s also an element of human feedback, the more we search the better we can refine the process and pin down the sources and types of material we’re looking for.”

Although still being refined, the tool is already being put to practical use within the European Centre, helping to identify ‘hot topics’ that are likely to require investigation in the near future. It is also being used to continuously scan the Internet for information on eHealth, particularly developments that are likely to impact the provision of health services.

Co-author on the paper, Dr Tim Taylor said:

“In order for research and its findings to be effective, we need to anticipate issues, accumulate data about them in a timely fashion, and use this knowledge to inform crucial decisions. We’re hoping that the development of an automated tool to help with this process will help us to be more proactive – and less reactive – to emerging threats and opportunities.”

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