Hide ‘n Seek: What to do with empty data fields?

We’ve been working on a fundamental website redesign for a hefty biological database.

One design dilemma has been what to do with empty data fields. For example, on a Gene Summary we might have a “Variation” field listing variations found in the gene. Obviously, not all genes have variations.

Displaying field labels with empty contents clearly delineates the limits of our knowledge or curation, but at the same time leads to more visually confusing pages.

Current options we’re considering are:

1. Omit the field entirely.

Known unknowns (apologies to D. Rumsfeld), if you don’t know what you might know, you don’t know how much you do know. Or something like that.

2. Display the field label, but with empty contents.


3. Display the field label with a string:

Variations: no data available

This offers the same advantage as above, namely that gaps in our knowledge or curation are clearly indicated. But sparse entries become visually thick very fast.

We’re currently experimenting with other design patterns for handling this situation, too, including using color to de-emphasize empty fields or allowing users to turn off their display as a configuration option.

What do you prefer? Would you rather see all available data fields on a report page even if they’re empty? Or are you a minimalist and prefer that empty field be hidden?

On my way to Science Online ’11. Biological databases, represent! #scio11

Another early morning for the 6:05AM from Bozeman. 4 AM doesn’t feel so bad when the stars are shining and its 30° F outside.

Today I’m on my way to the Science Online ’11 meeting — in fact, I’m posting this in the air between Bozeman and Minneapolis. This is the first year I’ve been able to attend, having been stymied by conflicting advisory board meetings the past two years.

Humbly joining luminaries from science writing and blogging, my motivation for attending is a bit different. I’m most interested in exploring how we can make use of online tools and communities to make the process of science more transparent to other scientists, more accesible to the public, and in general, easier and more efficient.

Publicly-accessible web-based databases have become an essential component of daily research in biomedical sciences. I’m the project manager and lead developer of one such database. We know from user surveys that a vast majority of our users visit the site every day. Most databases — including ours — are referential in nature. You log on, look something up, and log off. But these resources could be so much more than that. We owe it ourselves to look at success cases in other fields to make these websites more interactive and useful.

At the moment, we are currently in the middle of a ground up rewrite of our site. Inspired by the rise of web 2.0 social media and networking, we’re building a number of new tools into the site not commonly found on biological websites.

For example, can we glean biologically meaningful information from the browsing patterns of users? I’ve tried to do this a number of times in the past using log file analysis with no limited success. In our new site, we’ve built a tool that does this in real-time to collect the most popular objects. When correlated with unique users, we can also use this as an Amazon-style suggest feature (“Users interested in this gene were also interested in gene Y”). We’ve extended this concept to a common “favorite this” design pattern to make possible matches even more relevant.

Features like this that revolve around community intelligence pose interesting questions for privacy and transparency. One approach that we are considering is to only tally and only present results to users who have specifically opted in.

Well, we’re descending below 10K feet. Time to post.

Volume 18, Number 3 of the Worm Breeder’s Gazette now available

Volume 18, Number 3 of the resurrected, open access research newsletter of the Caenorhabditis elegans research field is now available. Go get it while the gettin’s good!

The next issue of the Gazette will be release in June 2011, just prior to the 18th International Worm Meeting. You can submit articles now online at the Worm Breeder’s Gazette. The deadline for submissions is June 1, 2011.

The Worm Breeder’s Gazette: now accepting online submissions!

Last year I wrote about the return of an open access scientific newsletter (see: “An early model for open access returns: say hello to the new Worm Breeder’s Gazette“.)

Today I’m happy to announce that we’ve enhanced the Gazette with online submission of articles!

You must first register as a contributor before submitting an article for inclusion in the next issue of the Gazette.

About the publication schedule

We’ve chosen to mimic the original frequency of the Gazette with bi-yearly releases. These will occur in June and December of each year. A single volume of the Gazette consists of 4 issues over two years, or the span between the International C. elegans meeting.

Behind the scenes

For this interested in the implementation details, the article submission is powered by WordPress with extensive customization of the default Post and Page write panels. The submission form itself is broken out into distinct fields — the article text, references, figures, and so on.

The end result? A robust content management and user registration system for collecting brief scientific missives that require minimal copywriting to publish.

Want to set up your own newsletter?

This software is suitably generic to allow anyone to quickly set up their own newsletter consisting of public submissions, scientific or otherwise. Contact me at wbg@toddharris.net for information.