RMIT researcher uses open source tool Regina to work smarter, faster

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Open source research tools are a key aspect of open research. Tools like Regina, which allows users to share and build upon results, allow researchers to get straight to the heart of their research problems.

Dr William Pettersson, Research Fellow at RMIT University, not only uses Regina in his research, but he’s also a developer for the tool.

Regina is a suite of software that topologists can use, consisting of a main GUI, and about 4-6 smaller side programs and some assorted data files. It’s open source, and there are builds available online for Windows, Mac, various Linux distributions, and also in the iTunes and Google Play stores for your phones and tablets.

William uses Regina to study shapes, built up in multiple dimensions, and Regina allows him to start his research at a critical point without having to start from scratch each time. With Regina, William can work smarter, not harder. He can also work faster.

Read more about why William uses the open source tool Regina below:

Can you tell me more about Regina and your work with the software? How does it relate to your research?

I study topology, the field of mathematics that deals with surfaces and higher dimensional analogues.

Take a piece of rectangular paper, and glue the top and bottom edges together to get a tube. If you can then stretch and squeeze the ends of the tubes together, you can create a donut shape, which a topologist would call a torus.

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Regina allows us to build up these shapes (in anything up to 15 dimensions) to try to find that one special shape we are interested in. Alternatively, we could be given a shape and asked to determine what some of its properties are. All of these things can be done with Regina.

Regina can be used to build up a census of results, a massive list of all the interesting shapes we can find, although building this list is often done on supercomputers. Notably, the results of all that hard work are available to anyone who uses Regina.

Why did you choose to become a developer for Regina instead of using a more traditional software suite?

My work, in particular, involves working with some sort of shape, which is built up in this manner but often in higher dimensions. To find particular properties of the shape I have, I need to design and run various algorithms. If I was to write the code for an algorithm, my first questions would be something along the lines of “How do I represent the piece of paper” and the second step would be “How do I represent the idea of gluing two edges together”.

By working with Regina, I no longer have to do this. Instead I can use the representations that Regina has, which means I can get to the interesting parts of my algorithm much quicker. Additionally, because many people work with the representations in Regina, the Regina pieces are often well optimised. This means that all the ground work for your research has already been completed, and additionally has been thoroughly checked and re-checked. By using Regina, a researcher can focus their time on their actual research, rather than any trivialities that occur when programming.

What is the greatest value for researchers in using Regina as opposed to a proprietary software suite?

As Regina is open source, the work that other researchers complete is often added back into Regina. With a closed-source program, it would be much harder (if not impossible) for other researchers to integrate their work. Without an open source project, the end result would be a fractured environment for software in topology, where a researcher might have to deal with mundane data structures and try to wrangle various bits of pieces together. Instead, we have a well structured environment where any improvements and bug fixes can easily be implemented and everyone is able to benefit from the work done without having to repeat the actual work.

My work with Regina is not limited to theoretical research aspects.

Often we will have more mundane fixes to apply, such as updates to various tool-kits, or plain and simple bug patching. All of these tasks are important, as Regina is only useful if it is actually usable. As such, we do always try to ensure that the interface is as user-friendly as possible. I chose to become a developer of Regina partly for this reason. It is a piece of software that is written by researchers, but it is aimed for a broader audience, and I believe this is what makes a software project sustainable. Without an audience, a project will often fade away. I think this is a significant advantage to well-managed open source projects. Regina is almost 16 years old, and all of the research that has gone into Regina over these 16 years is still available.

You can find more information about William and his research on his website here.

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