Here is an interview with Michal Kosinski , leader of the team that has created Concerto – a web based application using R. What is Concerto? As per http://www.psychometrics.cam.ac.uk/page/300/concerto-testing-platform.htm
Concerto is a web based, adaptive testing platform for creating and running rich, dynamic tests. It combines the flexibility of HTML presentation with the computing power of the R language, and the safety and performance of the MySQL database. It’s totally free for commercial and academic use, and it’s open source
Ajay- Describe your career in science from high school to this point. What are the various stats platforms you have trained on- and what do you think about their comparative advantages and disadvantages?
Michal- I started with maths, but quickly realized that I prefer social sciences – thus after one year, I switched to a psychology major and obtained my MSc in Social Psychology with a specialization in Consumer Behaviour. At that time I was mostly using SPSS – as it was the only statistical package that was taught to students in my department. Also, it was not too bad for small samples and the rather basic analyses I was performing at that time.
My more recent research performed during my Mphil course in Psychometrics at Cambridge University followed by my current PhD project in social networks and research work at Microsoft Research, requires significantly more powerful tools. Initially, I tried to squeeze as much as possible from SPSS/PASW by mastering the syntax language. SPSS was all I knew, though I reached its limits pretty quickly and was forced to switch to R. It was a pretty dreary experience at the start, switching from an unwieldy but familiar environment into an unwelcoming command line interface, but I’ve quickly realized how empowering and convenient this tool was.
I believe that a course in R should be obligatory for all students that are likely to come close to any data analysis in their careers. It is really empowering – once you got the basics you have the potential to use virtually any method there is, and automate most tasks related to analysing and processing data. It is also free and open-source – so you can use it wherever you work. Finally, it enables you to quickly and seamlessly migrate to other powerful environments such as Matlab, C, or Python.
Ajay- What was the motivation behind building Concerto?
Michal- We deal with a lot of online projects at the Psychometrics Centre – one of them attracted more than 7 million unique participants. We needed a powerful tool that would allow researchers and practitioners to conveniently build and deliver online tests.
Also, our relationships with the website designers and software engineers that worked on developing our tests were rather difficult. We had trouble successfully explaining our needs, each little change was implemented with a delay and at significant cost. Not to mention the difficulties with embedding some more advanced methods (such as adaptive testing) in our tests.
So we created a tool allowing us, psychometricians, to easily develop psychometric tests from scratch an publish them online. And all this without having to hire software developers.
Ajay -Why did you choose R as the background for Concerto? What other languages and platforms did you consider. Apart from Concerto, how else do you utilize R in your center, department and University?
Michal- R was a natural choice as it is open-source, free, and nicely integrates with a server environment. Also, we believe that it is becoming a universal statistical and data processing language in science. We put increasing emphasis on teaching R to our students and we hope that it will replace SPSS/PASW as a default statistical tool for social scientists.
Ajay -What all can Concerto do besides a computer adaptive test?
Michal- We did not plan it initially, but Concerto turned out to be extremely flexible. In a nutshell, it is a web interface to R engine with a built-in MySQL database and easy-to-use developer panel. It can be installed on both Windows and Unix systems and used over the network or locally.
Effectively, it can be used to build any kind of web application that requires a powerful and quickly deployable statistical engine. For instance, I envision an easy to use website (that could look a bit like SPSS) allowing students to analyse their data using a web browser alone (learning the underlying R code simultaneously). Also, the authors of R libraries (or anyone else) could use Concerto to build user-friendly web interfaces to their methods.
Finally, Concerto can be conveniently used to build simple non-adaptive tests and questionnaires. It might seem to be slightly less intuitive at first than popular questionnaire services (such us my favourite Survey Monkey), but has virtually unlimited flexibility when it comes to item format, test flow, feedback options, etc. Also, it’s free.
Ajay- How do you see the cloud computing paradigm growing? Do you think browser based computation is here to stay?
Michal - I believe that cloud infrastructure is the future. Dynamically sharing computational and network resources between online service providers has a great competitive advantage over traditional strategies to deal with network infrastructure. I am sure the security concerns will be resolved soon, finishing the transformation of the network infrastructure as we know it. On the other hand, however, I do not see a reason why client-side (or browser) processing of the information should cease to exist – I rather think that the border between the cloud and personal or local computer will continually dissolve.
Michal Kosinski is Director of Operations for The Psychometrics Centre and Leader of the e-Psychometrics Unit. He is also a research advisor to the Online Services and Advertising group at the Microsoft Research Cambridge, and a visiting lecturer at the Department of Mathematics in the University of Namur, Belgium. You can read more about him at http://www.michalkosinski.com/
You can read more about Concerto at http://code.google.com/p/concerto-platform/ and http://www.psychometrics.cam.ac.uk/page/300/concerto-testing-platform.htm