Friday 30 April 2010

DCC survey on social media use

The DCC is currently trying to gather information on the use of social media by those looking at research data management issues. It's already been publicised through a number of routes, so you may already be aware of it. If not, please give us 5 minutes of your time (yes, really 5 minutes - perhaps even less!) to answer a few questions on the survey page we set up:

There's no need to identify yourself and we'll only be using the data in aggregate form.

Wednesday 31 March 2010

Linked Data and Reality

I have a copy of the really interesting book “Data and Reality” by William Kent. It’s interesting at several levels; first published in 1978, this appears to be a “print-on-demand” version of the second edition from 1987. Its imprint page simply says “Copyright © 1998, 2000 by William Kent”.

The book is full of really scary ways in which the ambiguity of language can cause problems for what Kent often calls “data processing systems”. He quotes Metaxides:

“Entities are a state of mind. No two people agree on what the real world view is”
Here’s an example of Kent from the first page:
“Becoming an expert in data structures is… not of much value if the thoughts you want to express are all muddled”
But it soon becomes clear that most of us are all too easily muddled, at least when
“... the thing that makes computers so hard is not their complexity, but their utter simplicity… [possessing] incredibly little ordinary intelligence”
I do commend this book to those (like me) who haven’t had formal training in data structures and modelling.

I was reminded of this book by the very interesting attempt by Brain Kelly to find out whether Linked Data could be used to answer a fairly simple question. His challenge was ‘to make use of the data stored in DBpedia (which is harvested from Wikipedia) to answer the query

“Which town or city in the UK has the highest proportion of students?"
He has written some further posts on the process of answering the query, and attempting to debug the results.

So what was the answer? The query produced the answer Cambridge. That’s a little surprising, but for a while you might convince yourself it’s right; after all, it’s not a large town and it has 2 universities based there. The table of results shows the student population as 38,696, while the population of the town is… hang on… 12? So the percentage of students is 3224%. Yes, something is clearly wrong here, and Brian goes on to investigate a bit more. No clear answer yet, although it begins to look as if the process of going from Wikipedia to DBpedia might be involved. Specifically, Wikipedia gives (gave, it might have changed) “three population counts: the district and city population (122,800), urban population (130,000), and county population (752,900)”. But querying DBpedia gave him “three values for population: 12, 73 and 752,900”.

There is of course something faintly alarming about this. What’s the point of Linked Data if it can so easily produce such stupid results? Or worse, produce seriously wrong but not quite so obviously stupid results? But in the end, I don’t think this is the right reaction. If we care about our queries, we should care about our sources; we should use curated resources that we can trust. Resources from, say… the UK government?

And that’s what Chris Wallace has done. He used pretty reliable data (although the Guardian’s in there somewhere ;-), and built a robust query. He really knows what he’s doing. And the answer is… drum roll… Milton Keynes!

I have to admit I’d been worrying a bit about this outcome. For non-Brits, Milton Keynes is a New Town north west of London with a collection of concrete cows, more roundabouts than anywhere (except possibly Swindon, but that’s another story), and some impeccable transport connections. It’s also home to Britain’s largest University, the Open University. The trouble is, very few of those students live in Milton Keynes, or even come to visit for any length of time (just the odd Summer School), as the OU operates almost entirely by distance learning. So if you read the query as “Which town or city in the UK is home to one or more universities whose registered students divided by the local population gives the largest percentage?”, then it would be fine.

And hang on again. I just made an explicit transition there that has been implicit so far. We’ve been talking about students, and I’ve turned that into university students. We can be pretty sure that’s what Brian meant, but it’s not what he asked. If you start to include primary and secondary school students, I couldn’t guess which town you’d end up with (and it might even be Milton Keynes, with a youngish population).

My sense of Brian’s question is “Which town or city in the UK is home to one or more university campuses whose registered full or part time (non-distance) students divided by the local population gives the largest percentage?”. Or something like that (remember Metaxides, above). Go on, have a go at expressing your own version more precisely!

The point is, these things are hard. Understanding your data structures and their semantics, understanding the actual data and their provenance, understanding your questions, expressing them really clearly: these are hard things. That’s why informatics takes years to learn properly. Why people worry about how the parameters in a VCard should be expressed in RDF. It matters, and you can mess up if you get it wrong.

People sometimes say there’s so much dross and rubbish on the Internet, that searches such as Google provides are no good. But in fact with text, the human reader is mostly extraordinarily good at distinguishing dross from diamonds. A couple of side searches will usually clear up any doubts.

But people don’t do data well. Automated systems do, SPARQL queries do. We ought to remember a lot more from William Kent, about the ambiguities of concepts, but especially that bit about computers possessing incredibly little ordinary intelligence. I’m beginning to worry that Linked Data may be slightly dangerous except for very well-designed systems and very smart people…

Tuesday 9 March 2010

When data shouldn’t be open?

There is a big momentum these days about data being accessible, available, and re-usable. Increasingly people want open data; Science Commons have been recommending using CC0 to make the fully open status of data clear. More recently the Panton Principles start:

“Science is based on building on, reusing and openly criticising the published body of scientific knowledge.

For science to effectively function, and for society to reap the full benefits from scientific endeavours, it is crucial that science data be made open.”

We’ve been big fans of Open Access at the DCC since its early days. We use a Creative Commons licence for our content by default. This blog was one of the earliest to be specific about a Creative Commons licence not only for the core text that we write, but also for the comments that you might add here.

So we strongly support the Open Data approach… where possible. For of course in some areas of science and research, there are data that cannot be open. Usually this is because the data are sensitive. They could be personal data, protected under Data Protection laws. Sensitive personal data (such as medical record data) has extra requirements under those laws. They could be financial microdata, commercially sensitive. Or perhaps data with strong commercial exploitation potential. They could be anthropological data, sensitive through cultural requirements. Research needs to go anywhere, whatever the issues; we can’t be constrained to only research where the data can be open.

So perhaps it’s as simple as that: some science should have open data, and some should have closed data?

Well, maybe not. Because the underlying issue of the Panton Principles must still apply. Research should be verifiable, whether through repeatable experiments or through re-analysable data. Unverifiable research is, well, unreliable- perhaps indistinguishable from fraud. Some access is needed; perhaps we should think of even sensitive data as Less Open Data rather than closed data.

So how do you go about dealing with sensitive data? Keep it secure, transfer securely, provide access under strict licences and controls in dat enclaves, aggregate, de-identify, anonymise, there are plenty of tricks in the book. That’s the topic of the 4th Research Data Management Forum starting tomorrow in Manchester. I’ll hope to have more to write about what we learn later.

A Blue Ribbon for Sustainability?

When we talk about long term digital preservation, about access for the future, about the digital records of science, or of government, or of companies, or the designs of ships or aircraft, the locations of toxic wastes, and so on being accessible for tens or hundreds of years, we are often whistling in the dark to keep the bogeys at bay. These things are all possible, and increasingly we know how to achieve them technically. But much more than non-digital forms, the digital record needs to be continuously sustained, and we just don’t know how to assure that. Providing future access to digital records needs action now and into that future to provide a continuous flow of the necessary will, community participation, energy and (not least) money. Future access requires a sustainable infrastructure. Ensuring sustainability is one of the major unsolved problems in providing future access through digital preservation.

For the past two years I have been lucky enough to be a member of the grandly named Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, along with a stellar cast of experts in preservation, in the library and archives worlds, in data, in movies… and in economics. C0-chaired by Fran Berman (previously of SDSC, now of RPI) and Brian Lavoie of OCLC, the Task Force produced an Interim Report (PDF) a year ago, and has just released its Final Report (Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information, also PDF). (The Task Force was itself sustained by an equally stellar cast of sponsors, including the US National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in partnership with the Library of Congress, the UK’s JISC, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and NARA.)

Sustainability is often equated to keeping up the money supply, but we think it’s much more than that. The Task Force specifically looks at economic sustainability; it says early in the Executive Summary that it’s about

… mobilizing resources—human, technical, and financial—across a spectrum of stakeholders diffuse over both space and time.”

If you want a FAQ on funding your project over the long term you won’t find it here. Nor will you find a list of benefactors, or pointers to tax breaks, or arguments for your Provost. Instead you should find a report that helps you think in new ways about sustainability, and apply that new thinking to your particular domain. For one of our major conclusions is that there are no general, across the board answers.

One of the great things about this Task Force was its sweeping ambition. Not just content with bringing together a new economics of sustainable digital preservation, but thinking so broadly. This was never about some few resources, or this Repository or that Archive, it was about the preservation and long term access of major areas of our intellectual life, like scholarly communication, like research data, like commercially owned cultural content (the movie industry is part of this), and the blogosphere and variants (collectively produced web content). Looking at those four areas holistically rather than as fragments forced us to recognise how different they are, and how much those differences affect their sustainability. They aren’t the only areas, and indeed further work on other areas would be valuable, but they were enough to make the Task Force think differently from any activity I have taken part in before.

The report is, to my mind, exceedingly well written, thanks to Abby Smith Rumsey; it far exceeds the many rather muddled conversations we had during our investigations. It has many quotable quotes; among my favourites is

“When making the case for preservation, make the case for use.”

Reading the report is not without its challenges, as you might expect. It has to marry two technical vocabularies and make them understandable to both communities. I’ve been living partly in this world for two years, and still sometimes stumble over it; I remember many times screwing up my forehead, raising my hand and asking “Tell us again, what’s a choice variable?” And the reader will have to think about things like derived demand for depreciable durable assets, nonrival in consumption, temporally dynamic and path-dependent, not to mention the free rider problem. These concepts are there for a reason however; get them straight and you’ll understand the game a lot better.

And there are not surprisingly big underlying US-based assumptions in places, although the two resident Brits (myself and Paul Ayris of UCL) did manage to inject some internationalism. Further work grounded in other jurisdictions would be extremely valuable.

Overall I don’t think this report is too big an ask for anyone anywhere who is serious about understanding the economic sustainability of digital preservation and future access to digital materials. I hope you find the great value that I believe exists here.

Monday 1 March 2010

DCC: A new phase, a new perspective, a new Director

As the DCC begins its third phase today, I am delighted to announce the appointment of our new Director, Kevin Ashley, who will succeed me upon my retirement in April 2010.

Kevin Ashley has been Head of Digital Archives at the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC) since 1997, during which time his multi-disciplinary group has provided services related to the preservation and reusability of digital resources on behalf of other organisations, as well as conducting research, development and training. The group has operated the National Digital Archive of Datasets for The National Archives of the UK for over twelve years, delivering customised digital repository services to a range of organisations. As a member of the JISC's Infrastructure and Resources Committee, the Advisory Council for ERPANET, plus several advisory boards for data and archives projects and services, Kevin has contributed widely to the research information community. As a firm and trusted proponent of the DCC we look forward to his energetic leadership in this new phase of our evolution.

So far so press release. But I'd go further. I can't tell you how pleased I am with this appointment. As some readers will know, I have personally lobbied all and any potential candidates for this post since before I officially announced I was leaving. I understand we had some excellent candidates (I wasn't directly involved), more than one of whom might have made an excellent Director. But I'm particularly pleased at Kevin's appointment for several reasons: he is well engaged in the community including good connections with JISC, our major funder), he's tough enough to keep this tricky collaboration thing going, he has an excellent technical understanding, and he has great experience of actually managing this stuff in all its crusty awfulness. I particularly remember his discussion (on a visit to the Edinburgh Informatics Database Group) about issues like how best to deal with an archived dataset where they came across the characters "five" in a field defined as numeric! You can make it work or make it a record but not both...

So congratulations Kevin, and good luck!

Thursday 4 February 2010

Persistent identifiers workshop comes round again

It seems to be the one event that people think is important enough to go to, even though they fear in their hearts that, yet again, not a lot of progress will be made. Most of those at yesterday’s JISC-funded Persistent Identifiers workshop yesterday had been to several such meetings before. For my part, I learned quite a lot, but the slightly flat outcome was not all that unexpected. It’s not quite Groundhog Day, as things do move forward slightly from one meeting to the next.

Part of the trouble is in the name. There is this tendency to think that persistent identifiers can be made persistent by some kind of technical solution. To my mind this is a childish belief in the power of magic, and a total abrogation of responsibility; the real issues with “persistent” identifiers are policy and social issues. Basically, far too many people just don’t get some simple truths. If you have a resource which has been given some kind of identifier that resolves to its address (so people can use it), and you change that address without telling those who manage the identifier/resolution, then the identifier will be broken. End of, as they say!

This applies whether you have an externally managed identifier (DOI, Handle, PURL) or an internally managed identifier (eg a well-designed HTTP URI… Paul Walk threatened to throw a biscuit at the first person to mention “Cool URLs”, but had to throw it at himself!).

Now clearly some identifiers have traction in some areas. Thanks to the efforts of CrossRef and its member publishers, the DOI is extremely useful in the scholarly journal literature world. You really wouldn’t want to invent a new identifier for journal articles now, and if you have a journal that doesn’t use DOIs (ahem!), you would be well-advised to sign up. It looks very affordable for a small publisher: $275 per year plus $1 per article.

Even for such a well-established identifier, with well-defined policies and a strong set of social obligations, things do go wrong. I give you Exhibit A, for example, in which Bryan Lawrence discovers that dereferencing a DOI for a 2001 article on his publications list leads to "Content not found" (apologies for the “acerbic” nature of my comment there). It looks like this was due to a failure of two publishers to handle a journal transfer properly; the new publisher made up a new DOI for the article, and abandoned the old one. Aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhhh! Moving a resource and giving it a new DOI is a failure of policy and social underpinning (let alone competence) that no persistent identifier scheme can survive! CrossRef does its best to prevent such fiascos occurring, but see social issues above. People fail to understand how important this is, or simple things like: the DOI prefix is not part of your brand!

Whether a DOI is the right identifier to use for research data seems to me a much more open question. The issue here is whether the very different nature of (at least some kinds of) research data would make the DOI less useful. The DataCite group is committed to improving the citability of research data (which I applaud), but also seems to be committed to use of the DOI, which is a little more worrying. While the DOI is clearly useful for a set of relatively small, unchanging digital objects published in relatively small numbers each year (eg articles published in the scholarly literature), is it so useful for a resource type which varies by many orders of magnitude in terms of numbers of objects, rate of production, size of object, granularity of identified subset, and rate of change? In particular, the issue of how a DOI should relate to an object that is constantly changing (as so many research datasets do) appears relatively un-examined.

There was some discussion, interesting to me at least, on the relationships of DOIs to the Linked Data world. If you remember, in that world things are identified by URIs, preferably HTTP URIs. We were told (via the twitter backchannel, about which I might say more later) that DOIs are not URIs, and that the version is not a DOI (nor presumably is the INFO URI version). This may be fact, but seems to me rather a problem, as it means that "real DOIs" don't work as 1st class citizens of a Linked data World. If the International DOI Foundation were to declare that the HTTP version was equivalent to a DOI, and could be used wherever a DOI could be used, then the usefulness of the DOI as an identifier in a Linked Data world might be greatly increased.

A question that’s been bothering me for a while is when an “arms-length” scheme, like PURL, Handle, DOI etc is preferable to a well-managed local HTTP identifier. We know that such well-managed HTTP identifiers can be extremely persistent; as far as I know all of the eLib programme URIs established by UKOLN in 1995 still work, even though UKOLN web infrastructure has completely changed (and I suspect that those identifiers have outlasted the oldest extant DOI, which must have happened after 1998). Such a local identifier remains under your control, free of external costs, and can participate fully in the Linked Data world; these are quite significant advantages. It seems to me that the main advantage of the set of “arms-length” identifiers is that they are independent of the domain, so they can be managed even if the original domain is lost; at that point, a HTTP URI redirect table could not be set up. So I’m afraid I joked on twitter that perhaps “use of a DOI was a public statement of lack of confidence in the future of your organisation”. Sadly I missed waving the irony flag on this, so it caused a certain amount of twitter outrage that was unintentional!

In fact the twitter backchannel was extremely interesting. Around a third or so of the twits were not actually at the meeting, which of course was not apparent to all. And it is in the nature of a backchannel to be responding to a heard discourse, not apparent to the absent twits; in other words, the tweets represent a flawed and extremely partial view of the meeting. Some of those who were not present (who included people in the DOI world, the IETF and big publishers) seemed to get quite the wrong end of the stick about what was being said. On the other hand, some external contributions were extremely useful and added value for the meat-space participants!

I will end with one more twitter contribution. We had been talking a bit about the publishing world, and someone asked how persistent are academic publishers. The tweet came back from somewhere “well, their salespeople are always ringing us up ;-) !

Tuesday 2 February 2010

More on contact pages and linked data

I wrote about RDF-encoding contact information a little earlier and had some very helpful comments. On reflection, and after exploring the “View Source” options for a couple of institutional contact pages, I’ve had some further thoughts.

- Contacts pages are rarely authored, they are nearly always created on the fly from an underlying database. This makes them natural for expressing in RDF (or microformats). It’s just a question of tweaking the way the HTML wrapper is assembled. Bath University’s Person Finder pages do encode their data in microformats.

- I wondered why more universities don’t encode their data in microformats or (even better) in RDF for Linked Data. One possible answer is that the contact pages were probably one of the earliest examples of constructing web pages from databases. It works, it ain’t broke, so they haven’t needed to fix it! If so, a reasonable case would need to be made for any change, but once made it would be comparatively cheap to carry out.

- A second problem is that it is not at all clear to me what the best encoding and vocabulary for institutional (or organisational unit) contact pages might be. So maybe it’s even less surprising that things have not changed. To say I'm confused is putting it mildly! So what follows list some of the options after further (but perhaps not complete) investigation...

One approach is the hCard microformat, based on the widely used vCard specification, RFC2426 (this is what Bath uses). That’s fine as far as it goes, but microformats don’t seem to fit directly in the Linked Data world. I’m no expect (clearly!), but in particular, microformats don’t use URIs for the names of things, and don’t use RDF. They appear useful for extracting information from a web page, but not much beyond that (I guess I stand to be corrected here!).

Looking at RDF-based encodings, there are options based on vCard, there are FOAF and SIOC (both really coming from a social networking view point), and there’s the Portable Contacts specification.

Given that vCard is a standard for contact information, it would seem sensible to look for a vCard encoding in RDF. It turns out that there are two RDF encodings of vCard, one supposedly deprecated, and the other apparently unchanged since 2006. I now discover an activity to formalise a W3C approach in this area, with a draft submission to W3C edited by Renato Ianella and dating only from last December (2009), but I would need a W3C username and password to see the latest version, so I can't tell how it's going,

Someone asked me a while ago who sets the standards for Linked Data vocabularies. My response at the time was that the users did, by choosing which specification to adopt. At the time, FOAF seemed to have most mentions in this general area, and I rather assumed (see the previous post) that it would have the appropriate elements. However, the “Friend of a Friend” angle really does seem to dominate; this vocabulary does seem to be more about relationships, and to be lacking in some of the elements needed for a contacts page. I suspect this might have stemmed from a desire to stop people compromising their privacy in a spam-laden world. However, those of us in public service posts often need to expose our contact details. However, FOAF does have email as foaf:mbox, which apparently includes phone and fax as well, as you can see from the sample FOAF extract in my earlier post.

In a tweet Dan Brickley suggested: “We'll probably round out FOAF’s address book coverage to align with Portable Contacts spec”, so I had a look at the latter. The main web site didn’t answer, but Google’s cache provided me with a draft spec, which does appear to have the elements I need.

What elements do I need for a contact page? Roughly I would want some or all of:

  • Name
  • Job title/role in DCC (my virtual organisation)
  • (Optional job title/role in home organisation)
  • Organisational unit/Organisation
  • Address/location
  • Phone/fax numbers
  • Email address

So what could I do if this information were expressed in RDF in the contact pages for a partner institution (say UKOLN at Bath)? Well, presumably the DCC contact pages would be based on a database showing the staff who work on the DCC, with the contact information directly extracted from the remote pages (either linked in real time or perhaps cached in some way). And if Bath changed their telephone numbers again, our contact details would remain up to date. But more. Given that there are some staff members who have roles in several projects, it would be easy to see who the linkages were between the DCC and the other project (eg RSP in the past, or I2S2 now). Part of the point of Linked Data (rather than microformats) is that one can reason with it; follow the edges of the great global graph…

And perhaps I would be able to find a simple app that extracts a vCard from the contact page to import into my Mac’s Address Book, which is where I started this search from! You wouldn’t think it would be hard, would you? I mean, this isn’t rocket science, surely?

Thursday 21 January 2010

Digimap is 10

I had a very enjoyable day yesterday helping EDINA celebrate 10 years of the Digimap service. What began as an eLib project and experiment with 6 Universities in 1996 has grown to a mature service with over 100,000 users, 45,000 of them active, in pretty much every UK University, and soon in UK schools as well.

In 1996 I was Programme Director of the eLib Programme, and my earliest email about Digimap was from the JISC money man, Dave Cook, on 30 January 1996 to Peter Burnhill of the Edinburgh Data Library (as it then was). Dave told Peter we were interested in his idea (for an Images project!) but had a few concerns (that the Ordnance Survey might not agree to let us use their mapping data; it’s hard to remember now how difficult some of those 1990s persuasions were!). Three days later, Dave was offering real money, although it had to be spent by 20 March that year. Done!

By late 1997 the Digimap project (*) had a trial service; I remember experimenting with it and having some problems (this was with Netscape 3 on a PowerMac Duo or something like that; woefully under-powered in retrospect). By the end of 1999, they were moving to a new GIS system, and we were beginning to discuss turning Digimap into a service, and that went live in January 2000. They had to get 37 subscribing Universities by a particular deadline, and I think managed 39 by somewhat earlier.

Since then the service has grown in scope, quality, usage and value. In my personal opinion (full disclosure, I’m not neutral here, having been associated with it through advisory groups of various kinds throughout its life), Digimap is the best service funded by JISC. Best in quality, best in professionalism, best in innovation, best in support. A lot of people deserve credit for that, and EDINA should all be extremely proud of what they have created. By the way, the OS have managed some major shifts in attitude over the years, from suspicious tolerance through to strong support, and the success is partly down to them, and to the efforts of the negotiators in what is now JISC Collections.

As well as various forms of OS mapping for GB (whose trademark names always escape me... and it is GB rather than UK, for weird historical reasons), Digimap now offers 4 “epochs” of historic maps from Landmark, plus Geology maps from BGS and Marine maps from SeaZone. Due to licence restrictions it is only available to registered staff and students at subscribing UK institutions, but I hope that those of you unlucky enough not to fall in that category can soon read more about it on the pages to be put up related to the celebration.

Digimap has been a bit clunky at times compared with the innovations introduced by some others, but with the new underlying GIS, the interfaces are being upgraded; they now have “slippy maps” (called Digimap Roam) on the base service, and it looks really smart and much more functional. It's tough for a small group to keep up with the likes of Google, Yahoo and MS! Soon this slippy map interface will be extended to the Historic service (“Ancient Roam”?), Geology (“Rock’n Roam”?) and Marine (a rather dull “H2Roam”!)… I think those might be internal names, but if you can complete the set with an even punnier marine name, who knows they might keep them!

The day was good fun, and we heard quite a bit about what Digimap is and how it is being used (far more widely than geography departments). The most exciting was a student project using Digimap and a GPS for a light aircraft CFIT-avoidance system (CFIT is Controlled Flight Into Terrain, referred to as “having a bad day”!). We heard from the data suppliers, with a bit more about what’s coming. It was interesting to hear the OS man talking about moves towards Linked Data; I wasn’t sure how that would square with the closed access, but I think I muddled my question (confused Linked Data with OGC web services, I suspect). The service providers didn’t appear to be talking to each other about Linked Data, which might be a good start.

A highlight was the closing keynote from Vanessa Lawrence, CEO of OS, clearly extremely supportive of OS. Choosing her words very carefully (she is not allowed to influence anyone) she outlined the government’s open data initiative and the consultation on its implications for the OS; this consultation closes late March 2010, but she urged us to make any responses, whether collectively or as private citizens well before then. The consultation isn’t simply “should we open up access to OS data?”, it’s much more “how can we open up access to OS data and still sustain the quality of the data into the future”.

The celebration ended with a reception and dinner, with an amusing after-dinner talk by Michael Parker, author of Map Addict. All in all, a very enjoyable and worthwhile day to celebrate a significant anniversary.

PS the twitter tag is #digimap10; I’m not going to tag the post with it, as I’ve got far too many one-time tags that are a pain to manage…

PPS (*) Unfortunately the original Digimap project pages seem to have vanished, and the earliest Wayback Machine gathers appear to be faulty; the first successful gather I can find is

... which seems to refer to the service, not the project.

Linked data and staff contact pages

You may remember that I am interested in the extent to which we should use Semantic Web (or Linked Data) on the DCC web site. After some discussions, I reached the conclusion that we should do so, but the tools were not ready yet (this isn’t quite an Augustinian “Oh Lord, make me good but not yet”; specifically, we are moving our web site to Drupal 6, the Linked Data stuff will not be native until Drupal 7, and our consultants are not yet up to speed with Linked Data). I have to say that not all our staff are convinced of the benefits of using RDF etc on the web site, and I have had a mental note to write more about this, real soon now.

I was reminded of this recently. I wanted to phone a colleague who worked at UKOLN, one of our partners, and I didn’t have his details in my address book. So I looked on their web site and navigated to his contacts page. Once there I copied his details into the address book, before lifting the phone to give him a ring. After the call (he wasn’t there; the snow had closed the office), I thought about that process. I had to copy all those details! Wouldn’t it be great if I could just import them somehow? How could that be? UKOLN have expertise in such matters, so I tweeted Paul Walk (now Deputy Director, previously technical manager) asking whether they had considered making the details accessible as Linked Data using something like FOAF. You can guess I’m not fully up to speed with this stuff, but I’m certainly trying to learn!

Paul replied that they had considered putting microformats into the page (I guess this is the hCard microformat), and then asked me whether my address book understood RDF, or if I was going to script something? I was pretty sure the answer to the second part was “no” as I suspect such scripting currently is beyond me, and told Paul that I was using MacOSX 10.6 Address Book; it says nothing about RDF, but will import a vcard. I was thinking that if there was appropriate stuff (either hCard microformat or RDFa with FOAF) on the page, I might find an app somewhere that would scrape it off and make a vcard I could import.

Paul’s final tweet was: “@cardcc see the use-case, not sure it's a 'linked data' problem though. What are the links that matter if you're scraping a single contact?”

Well, I couldn’t think of a 140-character answer to that question, which seemed to raise issues I had not thought about properly. What are the links that matter? Was it linked data, or just coded data that I wanted? Is this really a semantic web question rather than linked data? Or is it a RDF question? Or a vocabulary question? Gulp!

After some thought, perhaps Paul was as constrained by his 140 characters as I was. Surely a contacts page contains both facts and links within itself. See the Wikipedia page on FOAF for examples of a FOAF file in turtle for Jimmy Wales; the coverage is pretty much like a contacts page.

So Paul’s contact page says he works for UKOLN at the University of Bath, and gives the latter’s address (I guess formally speaking he works in UKOLN, an administrative unit, and is employed by the University); that his position in UKOLN is Deputy Director, that his phone, fax and email addresses are x, y and z. All of these are relationships between facts, expressible in the FOAF vocabulary. With RDFa, that information could be explicitly encoded in the HTML of the page and understood by machines, rather than inferred from the co-location of some characters on the page (the human eye is much better at such inferences). So there’s RDF, right there. Is that Linked Data? Is it Semantic Web? I’m not really sure.

More to the point, would it have been any greater use to me if it had been so encoded? A FOAF-hunting spider could traverse the web and build up a network of people, and I might be able to query that network, and even get the results downloaded in the form of a vcard that I could import into my Mac Address Book. That sounds quite possible, and the tools may already exist. Or, there may exist an app (what we used to call a Small Matter Of Programming, or a SMOP) that I could point at a web page with FOAF RDFa on it. Perhaps that’s what Paul was after in relation to scripting. Maybe the upcoming Dev8D might find this an interesting task to look at?

What other things could be done with such a page? Well, Paul or others might use it to disambiguate the many Paul Walk alter egos out there. You’ll see I have a simple link to Paul’s contact page above, but if this blog were RDF-enabled, perhaps we could have a more formal link to the assertions on the page, eg to that Paul Walk’s phone number, that Paul Walk’s email address, etc.

Well I’m not sure if this makes sense, and it does feel like one of those “first fax machine” situations. However FOAF has been around for a long while now. Does that mean that folk don’t perceive an advantage in such formal encodings to balance their costs, or is this an absence of value because of a lack of exploitable tools? If so, anyone going to Dev8D want to make an app for me?

(It’s also possible of course that Paul doesn’t want his details to be spidered up in this way, but I guess none of us should put contact details on the web if that’s our position.)

By the way, I found a web page called FOAF-a-matic that will create FOAF RDF for you. Here's an extract from what it created for me, in RDF:
<foaf:Person rdf:ID="me"> <foaf:name>Chris Rusbridge</foaf:name> <foaf:title>Mr</foaf:title> <foaf:givenname>Chris</foaf:givenname>
<foaf:mbox rdf:resource="mailto:c.rusbridge@xxxxx"/> <foaf:workplaceHomepage rdf:resource=""/>
What could I do with that now?

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Scholarly HTML would be nice, but...

I'm quite interested in the idea of Scholarly HTML, as espoused in Pete Sefton's blog, and I've commented on some of Peter Murray Rust's hamburger PDF comments previously (although I do think a lot of people confuse wild PDF with well-made, should one say Scholarly PDF). I've always been slightly worried by one thing though.

A well-known advantage of PDF is that it pretty much assures I can save a document, share it, move it around etc and it will still be intact and readable. That's one of the reasons it's so popular.

Mostly we don't do that with HTML. Mostly we just point to it. But if I see an article these days, I want it on my computer if I'm allowed; this let's me study it at leisure, drop it in my Mendeley system, etc. As pointed out, that works a treat with PDF, and pretty well with Word or OpenOffice documents as well. This applies even where the document is quite heavily compound, with many embedded images, tables etc.

But if I try saving a HTML document to my hard disk, nothing very standard happens. OK, if I use Safari on my Mac, I get a .webarchive file, which is quite nice as I can do all the things with it that I could do with a PDF and Word etc, and when I open it later it will be as it was before, with all the images in place. But neither IE nor Firefox seem capable of opening a .webarchive file.

If I try saving the same article from Firefox, I get a .html file with the main article in it, and a directory with associated files in it (eg images). Safari does seem capable of opening this combination, but it's pretty ugly, and hard to move around. I haven't tried IE as I don't have easy access to it.

Is there in existence or development a standard approach to packaging the HTML and associated files that would be as convenient as the .webarchive, but usable across all browsers? If so, Scholarly HTML would be that little bit closer!

Persistence of domain names

I had a chat before Christmas with Henry Thompson, who works both in Edinburgh Informatics and also on the W3C TAG. Insofar as the Internet is important in sustaining long term access to information in digital form, there is a sustainability problem that we rather seem to have ignored. Everything on the Internet (literally) depends on domain names, and these are only ever rented. There is no mechanism for permanently reserving a domain name. Domain names can be lost by mistake (overlooking a bill, perhaps having moved in the interim and not informed the relevant domain name registrar), but they can also be lost on business failure. Although domain names can be a business asset, I understand that the registrars have some discretion on transfers, and in particular one cannot make a "domain name will" seeking transfer of the domain name to some benevolent organisation. Note, the mechanism for renting domain names has sustainability advantages, providing sustainability to important services that underpin the DNS.

There are two kinds of problem, one on a massive scale and one more fine-grained. The massive problem is that the entire infrastructure of the Internet depends on URIs, most of which are http URIs that in turn depend on the domain name system. So there are a number of organisations whose domain names are embedded in that infrastructure in a way and to an extent that is very difficult to change. W3C is clearly such an organisation. Many of these organisations seem rather fragile (not a comment on W3C, by the way, although its sustainability model is opaque to me). Should they fail and the domain names disappear, the relevant URIs will cease to work and various pieces of Internet machinery will fall apart.

(By the way, this does seem to be one case where a persistent ID that is independent of the original domain, such as a DOI, has advantages over a HTTP URI plus a redirect table. If the domain name no longer exists, you can't get to a redirect, whereas someone can still relink the DOI to a new location.)

On the more fine-grained scale, many documents (particularly in HTML) are not easily separable from their location, depending on other local files and documents. In addition of course, documents in some sense exist through their citations or bookmarks, that begin to exist separately from the document. Moving a document to a new domain can make it "fail" or disappear. So sustainability is linked to the domain as well as the other preservation factors.

This seems to me to be not at all a technical problem, but it seems to have legal/regulatory, governance, social, business and economic aspects.

Among the solutions might be creating a new top level domain designed for persistence, with different rules of succession, etc. Another (either instead of or in conjunction with the first) might be creating an organisation designed for persistence, to hold endowed domain names. Somehow the ongoing revenue stream for those underpinning services must be retained indefinitely into the future.

We don't think we have the answers, but we do think there is a problem here; I'm not yet sure if we have articulated it accurately at all. I would appreciate any comments. Thanks,

Director of Digital Curation Centre: still time to apply

I’m particularly keen that there be a good slate of candidates for this post, for which applications close on Friday 15 January, 2010. The details can be found at (sorry about the dodgy URL; I hope it works)

The further details say

"The mission of the Digital Curation Centre is to help build capacity, capability and skills for data curation across the UK higher education research community, while supporting and promoting emerging data curation practice. It also has a key role in supporting JISC, especially its new research data management programme. Overall, the DCC is an agent for change, committed to the diffusion of best practice in the curation of digital research data across the Higher Education sector, and providing an authoritative source of advocacy, resources and guidance to the UK research community. This mission is informed by five priorities:

to identify, gather, record and disseminate curation best practice, providing access to resources, tools, training and information that will equip data practitioners to make informed decisions regarding the management of their data assets;

to facilitate knowledge exchange between those currently and newly engaged in the generation and management of digital research data;

to build and support a community of informed practitioners that has the capacity to sustain itself, with the capability to manage and curate its data appropriately;

to identify crucial and important innovations in data curation, and seek additional resources to provide them;

to support JISC, especially in its repository, preservation and data management programmes.

To achieve this, the Director must be a persuasive advocate for better curation and management of research data, on a national or international scale. Able to listen and engage with researchers and with research management, publishers and research funders, the Director will build a strong, shared vision of the changes needed, and the ability (working with others in the DCC and beyond) to mobilise the community towards that end."

So if this fits you, or you know someone that it fits, please persuade that person to apply!

By the way, although the DCC may not escape further budget cuts, like all public services in the UK, I have been told that we are funded from core JISC funding rather than capital funding, and as such Phase 3 will not be curtailed as the proposed JISC Managing Research Data programme has been.

[NOTE: This vacancy has now CLOSED; no further applications will be accepted!]

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Digital Curation Centre User Survey 2009: Highlights

My colleague Angus Whyte has provided the following brief summary of two surveys carried out in Phases 1 and 2 of the Digital Curation Centre, in 2006 and 2009 respectively, as part of our evaluations. In retrospect, we might have done better revising the questions for the second survey rather more than we did; nevertheless I thought it worth while sharing this with you.

Angus writes:

In 2009 DCC users were surveyed, repeating a similar survey carried out in 2006. In the highlights below we draw conclusions both from the more recent results and also changes over the 3 year period. Both surveys were publicised on the DCC website and via several mailing lists, principally the DCC-Associates and (in 2009) the JISC sponsored Research-Dataman list.

Our conclusions take into account that the online questionnaire was self-completed by a self-selected group of respondents (75 in 2009 and 125 in 2006). DCC Associates (640 approx.) provided the bulk of the responses[1]. The results indicated broad patterns, relatively wide differences and consistent responses over the two surveys, even though these are not taken to be statistically representative.


In both surveys around 90% of respondents are familiar with the term ‘digital curation’ and regard it as a critical issue within their project or unit. The DCC is consistently given as the main source of information on curation issues by around 70% of respondents, with “on the job challenges/ research” second at around 60%.

Between the two surveys there is a large jump (from 13% to 32%) in the number of respondents indicating that DCC has been “very effective” in raising awareness about digital curation, and those believing it to be “slightly effective” has correspondingly fallen from 53% to 31%.

Of a list of DCC resources, five are identified as “most helpful” by at least 1 in 5 of the 2009 survey respondents, these being (in descending order) the DCC website, Briefing Papers (of various sorts), the DCC Curation Lifecycle Model, Case Studies, and the Digital Curation Manual.

Respondents universally associate digital curation with “ensuring the long-term accessibility and re-usability of digital information”, and large majorities (around 90%) also relate it to “performing archiving activities on digital information such as selection, appraisal and retention” and “ensuring the authenticity, integrity and provenance of digital information are maintained over time”. Rather lower but still significant numbers (around 60%) associate digital curation with “managing digital information from its point of creation” and “managing risks to digital information” – although many more highlight the latter in 2009 (up to 84% from 61%).

Curation or preservation addresses risks to the respondents’ organisations with “loss of organisational memory” consistently topping their list (identified by around 75% of respondents) and “business risks” second, identified by just under half, again across both surveys.

More than two thirds indicate that their main reasons for curating and preserving digital information are its educational/research or historical value; in both years a minority cites other reasons. Similarly, the main obstacles are indicated as financial or staff resources, with around half also indicating lack of awareness or appropriate policies.

For around 40% of respondents, management and preservation of digital information has an indefinite timescale. For a further 15% or so it is “beyond the life of the project/organisation”, and similar numbers indicate these are tasks “for the life of the project/organisation”.

The 2009 survey respondents are no strangers to the ‘data deluge’, most dealing with at least 100Gb and some (7%) more than 100Tb. Overall 79% expect this to increase in the next two years, surprisingly 3% do not, while 7% do not know. Most need to manage a mixture of open and proprietary formats, and report a wide variety of formats in use, predominantly common office applications, PDF documents and multimedia formats. Curation and preservation challenges are most frequently identified with obsolete proprietary formats. Image, video, and geospatial data are also often identified as challenges, as are web sites combining these.

Respondents were also asked in 2009 about re-use, and around a third indicate that research data is re-used internally, with similar numbers offering data generated by their project/unit for re-use by others, or re-using external data.

Access issues facing research projects/units are identified in both surveys and along similar lines; intellectual property rights (e.g. copyright) is the most frequently cited issue, followed by “privacy or ethical issues”, however “embargo on research findings” is least prevalent, identified by only a fifth of respondents.

Asked about funding for curation and preservation, responses show no clear picture. Around half of 2009 respondents indicate funding is “accounted for in project or institutional budget”. A large minority have no explicit funding for curation and preservation, and where resources are available these are pooled from other funded areas (e.g. IT budget for project or organisation) or research grants. Spending on curation/preservation is less than £50,000 (for around half of those respondents who were aware of this). Around half are unsure whether spending will increase or decrease, with the remainder being evenly split.

Detailed questions and response data are available on request.

Angus Whyte, Digital Curation Centre

[1] The DCC Associates membership list includes UK data organisations, leading data curators, overseas and supranational standards agencies, and industrial/business communities. Currently research data creators are under-represented (information from registration details).