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Another student project – crossing the curation boundary


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Another student project – crossing the curation boundary

I wrote last week about a student project on HTML slide-viewing for which I'm the client. This week I met with another group to talk about a project which has more direct application to my job as eResearch manager at the University of Western Sydney.

The next cohort are going to be looking at a system for getting working data into an eResearch application. Specifically they are going to have a go at building an uploader add-in to ownCloud, the Open Source Dropbox.com-like system so it can feed data to the HIEv data management application used by the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment. This project was inspired by two things:

  • The fact that we're working with ownCloud in a trial at UWS, and our cr8it data packaging and archiving application is based on ownCloud, so getting some students working in this area will help us better understand oC and build expertise around UWS.

  • A meeting with Gerry Devine, the data manager at HIE – where he was explaining how the institute is trying to improve the quality of data in HIEv; at this stage a least they don't want everything uploaded, and files need to conform to naming conventions^1^.

These two things go very nicely together; OwnCloud has a sync-service like Dropbox that can replicate folders full of files across machines, via a central server, and a web-view of the files, it has a plugin architecture so it is easy to add actions to files, and HIEv has an API that can accept uploads. The application is simple:

  • For certain file types, those that might have data like .csv files, show an 'Upload to HIEv' button in the web interface.

  • Present the user with aform, to collect metadata about the file; what date range does it represent, which experimental facility is it from, via a drop-down list etc (and yes automated metadata extraction would be nice to have, if the students have time).

  • Use the metadata to generate file-names based on the metadata.

  • Upload to HIEv.

I think that should be a reasonable scope for a third year assignment, with plenty of room to add nice add-on features if there's time. A couple of obvious ones:

  • Extracting metadata from files (eg working out the data-range).

  • Making the metadata form configurable eg with a JSON file.

Beyond that, there is a potentially much more ground-breaking extension possible. Instead of having to set up the metadata form for every context of research, what if information about the research context could be harvested from the web and the user could pick their context from that?

I have been talking this idea through with various eResearch and repository people. I submitted it as an idea to the Open Repositories Dev challenge (late, as usual). Nobody bit, but I think it's important:

If you are building a repository for research data, then you need to be able to record a lot of contextual metadata about the data being collected. For example, you might have some way to attach data to instruments . We typically see designs with hierarchies something like Facility / Experiment / Dataset / File. Problem is, if you design this into the application, for example via database table then that makes it much harder to adapt to a new domain or changing circumstances, where you might have more or fewer levels, or hierarchies of experiment or instrument might become important etc.

So, what I’d like to see would be a semantic wiki or CMS for describing research context with some built-in concepts such as “Institute”, “Instrument”, “Experiment”, “Study”, “Clinical Trial” (but extensible) which could be used by researchers, data librarians and repository managers to describe research context as a series of pages or nodes, and thus create a series of URIs to which data in any repository anywhere can point: the research data repository could then concentrate on managing the data, and link the units of data (files, sets, databases, collections) to the context via RDF assertions such as ‘<file> generatedBy <instrument>’. Describing new data sets would involve look-up and auto-completes to the research-context-semantic-wiki – a really interesting user interface challenge.

It would be great to see someone demonstrate this architecture, building on a wiki or CMS framework such as Drupal or maybe one of the NoSQL databases, or maybe as a Fedora 4 app, showing how describing research context in a flexible way can be de-coupled from one or more data-repositories. In fact the same principle would apply to lots of repository metadata – instead of configuring input forms with things like institutional hierarchies, why not set up semantic web sites that document research infrastructure and processes and link the forms to them?

Back to UWS and my work with Gerry Devine. Turns out Gerry has been working describing the research context for his domain, the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment. Gerry has a draft web site which describes the research context in some detail – all the background you'd like to have to make sense of a data file full of sensor data about life in whole tree chamber number four. It would be great if we could get the metadata in systems in HIEv pointing to this kind of online resource with statements like this:

<this-file> generatedBy https://sites.google.com/site/hievuws/facilities/eucface

To support this we'd meed to add some machine readable metadata to supplement Gerry's draft human-readable web site. Ideally such a site would be able to support versioned descriptions of context so you could link data to the particular configurations of the research context, in the interests of maximising research integrity as per the Singapore Statement:

4. Research Records: Researchers should keep clear, accurate records of all research in ways that will allow verification and replication of their work by others.

5. Research Findings: Researchers should share data and findings openly and promptly, as soon as they have had an opportunity to establish priority and ownership claims.

1I know there are some strong arguments that IDs should be semantically empty – ie that that should not contain metadata but there are good practical reasons why data files with good names are necessary, and anyway the ID for a data set is not the same as its filename when it happens to be on your laptop.