Science and the appliance of finance

26 Jun 2003

If location is everything, then NUI Galway has it all. Bounded by the River Corrib, with many buildings facing the 160-acre campus, the college is one of Ireland’s finest. And if research is everything, then NUI Galway also has it all. The new Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) at NUI Galway received €12m from the Science Foundation Ireland earlier this year, following a successful lobby by the university and DERI’s industrial partner, Hewlett-Packard (HP).

It received the funding against competition from 23 other applicants, making it one of Ireland’s new centres for science, engineering and technology.

Dean of research at NUI Galway, Prof Ger Hurley, explains the importance of HP’s partnership with this new institute. “The reason this partnership is important is not only the major contribution it is making, but also the fact that HP grew out of Compaq, which grew out of DEC [Digital Equipment Corporation] in Galway. So, HP in a sense has been in Galway for 30 years,” Hurley says. “And over that time, HP has had strong industrial links with the college and with the Digital Enterprise Research Institute, this partnership is cumulating and it’s going to the next level of research collaboration.”

DERI aims to conduct research on the semantic web and semantic web-enabled services and on the innovative implications of this emerging technology for industry and society. “The importance of this research to business and the public alike is evidenced by the already enormous use of the web as a tool for communication, accessing and distributing information and conducting business,” says Hurley.

“Traditional web technology has stimulated the development of entirely new methods of accessing markets, distributing product information and connecting dispersed commercial partners. However, the success of the web has made it increasingly difficult to find, sort, present and maintain the information distributed globally. Fortunately, the semantic web provides a way of handling this explosion of information and DERI will be at the forefront of this step into the second generation of web technology. Conceived by the architects of the original web, the semantic web is still in its infancy, but when fully developed it will enable computers to talk meaningfully to each other,” he says.

In the commercial world, where software technologies for different parts of a business have not been based on a common foundation, there are serious problems when trying to connect these various data-handling applications. Semantic web-enabled web services will allow the development of simple interfaces between these applications. With over 100 interconnected systems and interface technology ranging over 30 years, HP’s European Software Centre represents an ideal real-life laboratory in which the research carried out by DERI can be case studied and applied, according to Hurley.

The new institute will be directed by Prof Dieter Fensel, a leading figure in semantic web research worldwide, and co-directed by a yet-to-be-confirmed leading industrial partner. It is hoped to build the number of research staff in DERI to over 60 postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers by 2008.

While DERI will be based at the NUI Galway campus, it will also have a laboratory at HP’s European Software campus in Galway, allowing “easy physical and intellectual exchange of researchers between academia and industry”, as Hurley puts it. “The involvement of HP’s Europe Software Centre in Galway is particularly important for DERI’s mission to support the future development of indigenous industry,” he says.

According to Dr Chris Coughlan, senior manager with the firm, HP will take the theoretical output being developed in DERI and apply it to a practical business situation.

“It is a perfect marrying up of getting value for the research investment in Ireland by marrying up the industry and the educational institutes to promote academic research and then to take that academic research and translate it into value add on behalf of Ireland,” he says.

“We recognise that it has to be a two-way benefit. The benefits are very broad. There is a national benefit, a local benefit, an individual benefit, and there is an academic benefit and a company benefit. We are not just interested in extracting a company benefit, we are looking at extracting those overall group of benefits,” Coughlan concludes.

DERI is a rich collaboration between NUI Galway researchers from the Computer Integrated Manufacturing Research Unit, the Centre for Innovation and Structural Change, the departments of Information Technology and Electronic Engineering and key industrial researchers from HP’s European Software Centre in Galway. In addition, DERI hopes to attract world-class researchers from around the globe.

DERI has also developed strong academic links with the Next Web Generation Group at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, through joint projects headed by Fensel, and it plans to foster an extensive researcher exchange programme with the group.

“In a research area that demands teamwork and global collaboration, this international sharing of ideas and personnel will greatly enhance the potential of DERI to establish itself as a world leader in the semantic web,” Hurley adds.

By Lisa Deeney

Pictured (from left): Rory O’Connor, MD, Hewlett-Packard European Software Centre, Galway; Prof Dieter Fensel, director, Digital Enterprise Research Institute; and Prof Jim Browne, registrar, NUI Galway