DI2 Accelerator’s Digital Solutions Studio Helps Researchers Bring Data to Life

This pilot program pairs software engineers with researchers to create useful ways to share research findings.

Officially, we may be living in The Digital Age, but the current time period could just as easily be called The Data Age.

After all, “we live in a sea of data,” says Betsy Sinclair, PhD, co-director of the Incubator for Transdisciplinary Futures, which is one of many digital transformation-adjacent efforts happening within schools across the university that the Digital Intelligence and Innovation Accelerator (DI2 Accelerator) has been working with. 

Nearly all the research being conducted today at Washington University — and anywhere else for that matter — involves collecting, synthesizing, and analyzing massive amounts of data. Figuring out what to do with the data next, however, is often a challenge for investigators. How can researchers translate their data and findings into useful, accessible tools fit for public consumption? 

In the past, researchers typically amassed data points and standard errors in slide decks and built their own websites to present key findings to stakeholders and funders. But they haven’t really had a way to disseminate their work in a way that was accessible to non-academics. Until now. 

‘WashU’s Very Own Software Development Agency’

To solve this problem, Philip R.O. Payne, PhD, DI2 Accelerator implementation chair, and Albert M. Lai, PhD, deputy faculty lead for Digital Transformation, ideated the Digital Solutions Studio (DSS). Launched in early 2023 as part of the DI2 Accelerator, the DSS helps researchers bring their research to life through software engineering and development assistance. “It’s essentially WashU’s very own software development agency,” says Lai. “We have a team of software engineers who provide professional software development services to researchers with the sole purpose of ‘leveling up’ what they’re doing in their labs and making their findings more accessible to people outside the lab.” 

We take … highly technical research and make it more understandable for a wider audience. It allows the work to have a broader impact on the community at large by actually letting the research see the light of day.

Albert M. Lai, PhD, deputy faculty lead for Digital Transformation

In some cases, that means building out a digital tool that researchers can use to educate and share their findings with laypeople. Such was the case with DSS’s first project, the St. Louis Policy Initiative, which involved engineering a digital dashboard complete with census data, election results, park space, the city’s Citizens’ Service Bureau 311 call statistics, and more. 

“We take their highly technical research and make it more understandable for a wider audience,” Lai says. “It allows the work to have a broader impact on the community at large by actually letting the research see the light of day.”

Stories That Win is one such project the DSS built in collaboration with Sinclair and co-lead researcher, William Acree, PhD. 

“We wanted to make our research project accessible to a broad array of scholars,” Sinclair says. “But I was never going to have the kind of impact I wanted unless I could work with someone like Albert and his team. They had the vision to say, ‘Where else could this go? What other audiences could we reach?’ And that’s really the compelling value of the Digital Solutions Studio — they focus on user interface and user experience. They let you build things that you could not do as an academic.”

Facilitating Funding 

In addition to bringing research data to life, the DSS team also can help get a research project off the ground. 

“The other area we’re focusing on is taking some of these nascent ideas and getting them far enough along that faculty and their research teams can seek further research funding,” Lai says. “Oftentimes they just need a small boost to get their preliminary work to the point where they can go off and seek additional funding.”

That’s huge, Sinclair says. 

“The impact [of the DSS] is going to be pretty profound,” she says. “I’m completely blown away by this idea and the execution of it. We already have a whole lineup of ‘shovel-ready’ projects to run with them.”

These “shovel-ready” projects are providing proof-of-concept case studies that will offer other university researchers inspiration for how to use the DSS’s services in their own work. 

The Pilot Phase and Beyond

During the pilot phase, the DSS relied on borrowed effort from the Digital Transformation implementation team, in conjunction with contract-based software developers, to bring research to life, while Lai determines how best to approach staffing for the next phase of the DSS.

“It’s not whether or not the DSS is necessary — it definitely is,” Lai says. “We’re using the pilot phase to see what kinds of projects come through the door so we can figure out what full-time positions we need, what core competencies we need, etc. The plan is to staff to those core competencies and then in the future when we need support beyond those core competencies, we will seek support externally through consulting and software development firms.”

Lai also says he sees an opportunity to get students involved. “I absolutely think there’s potential for internships as we get further along,” he says. “I can imagine students interested in this type of work working side by side with these professional software developers and gaining invaluable real-world experience.”

Need Help with a Project?

The experts at the Digital Solutions Studio can help bring your research to life. Contact us to learn about joining the post-pilot phase project queue.