Work Locally, Search Globally

Wednesday, July 6, 2011 | 9:38 PM

Recently, I spent a month in Ghana working with NGOs and some government organizations. As a part of this, I visited a health research center in Dodowa, couple of hours from Accra. Staff members gather disease and demographics data from the district for research as well as for health policy recommendations.

The center is in the middle of farmlands with no access to landline phones - Internet access is via flaky mobile networks. When I introduced myself as an engineer working on Google Scholar, I expected I would need to describe Scholar at length and do some demos. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to see eyes light up with recognition. So, I talked to the staff members trying to understand how they use Scholar.

The research center maintains a digital library of scholarly articles related to malaria which is the biggest disease threat in the region. This library is used by researchers at the center as well as by a larger network of scientists interested in malaria. Alexander Nartey (program coordinator) curates the library and uses Scholar to discover newly published papers. Doris Sarpong (demographer/research officer) mentioned that the speed of Scholar helps her get her work done in spite of the limited connectivity. She also liked the ability to restrict results to recent papers. Alberta Amu Quartey (graduate student) works on the history of malaria serology. Scholar helped her find papers going as far back as the 1960s, many of them from Ghana and neighboring regions.

The simplest feedback I heard was from an older researcher who had been working in the field for a while. He liked that he could find anything anyone anywhere had discovered. He said, "A man who has never worn spectacles doesn't really know what he's missing". It is one thing to sit in a conference room in California and argue about Google Scholar features and algorithms and quite another to stand in an African village health center and hear in person what they make possible. Here is hoping Google Scholar can help more researchers in more places see further.

Posted by Mohit Rajani, Software Engineer