NCSA researchers awarded second patent in as many years

02.26.10 -

By John McDermott

For the second time in two years, NCSA research programmer Alan Craig and Kalev Leetaru, a former NCSA staffer, have been awarded a patent. This time, the duo's collaboration resulted in a user-friendly database program designed for academic communities unfamiliar with computer coding.

Inspiration for the technology came in 2004 when Illinois French professor Douglas Kibbee, then an NCSA Fellow, expressed a need to be able to easily and quickly edit databases. Kibbee was assembling data on the transformation of the French language and wanted fellow researchers to be able to easily access and change the data.

Since Kibbee and his colleagues lacked computer-programming knowledge, Leetaru and Craig set out to develop software that would allow large amounts of data to be edited by users who lacked computer-coding training.

Craig, who is also associate director of human-computer interaction for the Institute of Computing an in Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (I-CHASS), and Leetaru, coordinator of information technology and research for the Cline Center for Democracy, used their previous work developing an editable Web browser to develop a user-driven database program. Their patented answer to Kibbee's problem was a database program with an interface that increased usability and accessibility.

Leetaru described the technology as "a friendly front, but with all the power of a regular database."

Designed specifically for researchers in humanities disciplines, the new database technology allowed users to make "point and click" corrections to a database-driven website. Prior to the technology, editing such sites required learning software such as Adobe Dreamweaver or directly overhauling the site's code.

"The patent was part of a more overarching goal of NCSA to find underserved populations and help them use our technology to solve their problems," Craig said.

Craig said the work was a precursor to online communal applications like Google Docs. Since its initial use, many others in the humanities community have used the technology to create Web sites, and Microsoft has cited the patent in two patents of its own.