Thesis Stories Ep 3: Research is Hard!


Alhamdulilah I completed my thesis about three weeks ago; if you’re interested, you can check out my thesis and presentation. Looking back at the two years I spent at MASDAR, I have a couple of thoughts: Alhamdulilah I learnt a lot, met a couple of wonderful people and matured significantly. There were a couple of not-so-pleasant experiences too but I believe I emerged stronger ultimately.

So I switched to the complexity analysis of road networks after my stack overflow adventure ended unsuccessfully. It was a fresh start but I had no alternative since I wanted to graduate. In the end, I defended all my hard work in about 75 mins – imagine! Nearly 6 months of work translating into just 75 mins!!

Research is difficult! As difficult as any other endeavor; I think most researchers don’t know how their efforts will turn out (as most start-ups do at the beginning too). There is usually some hunch about a model, some experiments and then eventually they have to figure out what the ‘right’ result is. Also, ‘big data’ appears to be fun and cool but it requires unbelievable and prodigious amounts of grunt work.

I built JIZNA, a custom Python framework for complexity analysis. JIZNA can parse openstreetmaps XML dumps of cities (the parser was an open-source utility I found and modified), create dual graphs of these networks, merge discrete roads, exclude outliers and calculate the desired metrics. These metrics were used to predict how difficult it would be to search the city. The JIZNA platform is available here.

The Cool Stuff

I think I wrote much better code: the framework was modular, nicely designed and flexible; I was able to write some really cool algorithms for the complex computations and I learnt how to use Sphinx, the Python documentation tool. Sphinx, in my opinion, is a lovely tool once you grasp its basics.

The Not-so-Cool

I got a couple of interesting results however I think they were not so spectacular. I guess further work would reveal some new insights.

I had to throw away some of my code (a complete simulation framework had to be discarded when the approach changed) and my writing (again! This is the umpteenth time I’d be chopping off my writing).

So what did I learn? Lots more Python, algorithms, software design, documentation, writing, latex, vim and some maths (mostly matrix algebra). However, more importantly, I came to appreciate the value of grit, determination and perseverance while working towards goals. Don’t ever give up, even if all appears to be lost.

Next plans? I don’t quite know fully yet; one thing for sure: research is hard! :)

Did you like this post? Check out my other posts on Grad School.

14 Comments

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  1. Salam Alykum, Good to know you are thru with Grad School,Barkalahu in your endeavours. Would love to know more abt JIZNA. Jazakhalahu Khyrain

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  2. Impressive!

    Don’t go to rest now. Try to stay at this level of “excitation.”

    Apart from metrics for how difficult it would be to search a city, what other kinds of metrics can JIZNA be used to support in the near future?

    And, is the openstreetmap XML dump rich in Lagos data?

    Salaam.

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    • Thanks a lot Alex!

      The Lagos dump didn’t converge when I put it into the framework, guess the data is not too perfect or maybe I need to increase the number of cycles.

      JIZNA can also be used to model cities and find difficult-to-reach areas of cities. I foresee a situation where a user can extract the x most difficult/popular roads in a city.

      Kindly let me know if you need more information.

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