The Smart Tea Project

"I can go anywhere and its, like, this is me and my data. Its all there, bang."

- Chris,
a real chemist, on using Smart Tea
instead of a paper lab book.

Smart Tea is about improving the information environment for chemists doing chemistry - within and beyond the lab. Smart Tea is about supporting chemists in the preparation, execution, analysis and dissemination of their experimental work.


When chemists run experiments, they create a great deal of information: they describe hypotheses; they delineate methods for testing those hypotheses; they reference others' efforts in similar experiments; they record exact amounts of chemicals used, and the methods for combining them; they analyse the success or failure of these results.

Lab Book image

For all its technical sophistication, the modern lab experiment is still recorded using the same tools as scientists have been using over the past 200 years: a bound paper lab book (pictured right).

The flexibility of the lab book makes it great for chemists while carrying out an experiment: they can move it easily from their desk to the lab bench to a shelf. The book itself, however, is a poor mechanism for making the information stored in that book available to other scientists within the lab, or for that matter, to the same scientist after the experiment has been completed: if the scientist does not have the lab book to hand, the information is unavailable.


Image of Experiment in progress

Part of the world wide eScience Semantic Grid effort is to get the data crafted by individual scientists out of the lab and onto the Grid, where it can be accessed, compared and processed within the global science community.

To that end, the Smart Tea Project is focussing on the experimental process itself in order to understand how the (usually hand written) information generated in the lab can be transformed into information accessible beyond the confines of a single experimental entry in a single paper-based lab book.

The Lab Aether

With the evolution of the Semantic Grid and Pervasive Computing (information and computers everywhere), it is possible to change our thinking about information away from the lab book to the lab aether.

The ancient concept of aether was of an invisible medium, all around us. In our concept of a lab aether, the aether is the invisible medium holding information being generated within the lab. As chemists build up an experiment, they release the data to the lab aether where it can be captured, reused and displayed in multiple contexts, from plan to publication.

We can think in terms of such an aether now because of research developments like web services, intelligent agents and the semantic grid. We use effective information interaction design to support scientists both populate data into the aether and grab it back as needed.

Making Tea

The Smart Tea project involves researchers from various fields within Chemistry and Computer Science. On the computer science team alone, we have researchers in semantic web information systems, grid computing, intelligent agents, web services, and human computer interaction.

In order for all of us to gain a better understanding of the chemists' lab experiences, and of the experimental design and execution process in particular, we made tea as a chemistry experiment. The experiment was lead by team member Graham Smith, a chemist and computer scientist.

entering data adding measured tea checking reaction
recording tea, with chemistry kit set p measuring tea, with weight boat sampling tea  -syringe extration
evaluating reaction by smell evaluating reaction - by smell, chemistry set up log book pages from both iterations

Above, two versions of Making Tea: one, using household objects (images 1-3, 7); one using the appropriate chemical experimental apparatus (images 3-6, 8). We were most interested in what was recorded by the chemist during the experiments (image 9, pages from each experiment; click to enlarge view).

By running the experiment multiple times, informally with household tea making objects, all the way to runs with complete lab apparatus, and by having multiple stakeholders in the project present for these runs, we have been able to engage both chemists and computer scientists in the system design effort. Making Tea has given us a shared understanding of the lab environment, the experimental process, the chemists' requirements, and the possible sites within the process for the resulting Grid-based Tea Service for Chemists to come into play. We are now starting to move on and deconstruct the experimental process.

We call the results of our project the Smart Tea Service. The results from this collaboration will be on multiple fronts:

  • An eScience Integrated Application. The Smart Tea Service will demonstrate a functioning, integrated eLab environment, from context-aware lab applications, web services, information tracking and interaction support.
    The first phase will support the complete life cycle of chemists' interactions with the lab; the next phase will integrate the lab aether with the larger network of chemistry on the grid for shared information services.
  • Interaction. The Tea Service will produce new ways of interacting with the lab environment for chemists that increase safety, save steps and make data and designs readily discoverable and reusable - creating a more effective work and research environment for chemists.
  • Protocols. To drive the tea service, we will develop innovative protocols for describing and advertising the services available in the lab aether, for both the local lab and beyond.

The Smart Tea Team

Gareth Hughes, Hugo Mills, Terry Payne, m.c. schraefel and Graham Smith.

The Smart Tea Project is part of the larger Combechem eScience project. Project Director is Jeremy Frey; David De Roure is the Principal Investigator for the Computer Science team.

More information

There is a brief 2-page flyer (PDF) available showing the state of the Smart Tea work in March 2004.

A diagram of the RDF structures for a sample experiment (PDF) is available to illustrate the use of the SmartLab ontology.

[NEW] Related Projects

myTea is a follow on to Smart Tea.

In myTea, we will be exploring how the design methods developed in Smart Tea can be applied in the bioinformatics space of the myGrid eScience project.

myTea is funded by EPSRC as part of its one year eScience "best practice" projects, to support research knowledge transfer from one eScience project to another. The goal of the program is to give us an opportunity to develop the generalizability of our research findings from one project to broader contexts.

Smart Tea Papers

The e-Science Context

  • Frey, J., De Roure, D., schraefel, m. c., Mills, H., Fu, H., Peppe, S., Hughes, G., Smith, g. and Payne, T. R. (2003)
    Context Slicing the Chemical Aether.
    In David, M., Eds. Proceedings of First International Workshop on Hypermedia and the Semantic Web,Nottingham, UK.

Information Architecture, from Front End to Middleware

Interaction Design


Smart Tea Digital Lab Book Tools/Extensions