Leading a Digital Curation ‘Lifestyle’: First day reflections on IDCC15

[First published on the DCC Blog, republished here with permission.]

Okay that title is a joke, but an apt one to name a brief reflection of this year’s International Digital Curation Conference in London this week, with the theme of looking ten years back and ten years forward since the UK Digital Curation Centre was founded.

The joke references an alleged written or spoken mistake someone made in referring to the Digital Curation lifecycle model, gleefully repeated on the conference tweetstream (#idcc15). The model itself, as with all great reference works, both builds on prior work and was a product of its time – helping to add to the DCC’s authority within and beyond the UK where people were casting about for common language and understanding in this new terrain of digital preservation, data curation, and – a perplexing combination of terms which perhaps still hasn’t quite taken off, ‘digital curation’ (at least not to the same extent as ‘research data management’). I still have my mouse-mat of the model and live with regrets it was never made into a frisbee.

Digital Curation Lifecycle

The Digital Curation Lifecycle Model, Sarah Higgins & DCC, 2008

They say about Woodstock that ‘if you remember it you weren’t really there’, so I don’t feel too bad that it took Tony Hey’s coherent opening plenary talk to remind me of where we started way back in 2004 when a small band under the directorship of Peter Burnhill (services) and Peter Buneman (research) set up the DCC with generous funding from Jisc and EPSRC. Former director Chris Rusbridge likes to talk about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ when describing long-term preservation, and Tony reminded us of the important, immediate predecessors of the UK e-Science Programme and the ground-breaking government investment in the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) that was already changing a lot of people’s lifestyles, behaviours and outlooks.

Traditionally the conference has a unique format that focuses on invited panels and talks on the first day, with peer-reviewed research and practice papers on the second, interspersed with demos and posters of cutting edge projects, followed by workshops in the same week. So whilst I always welcome the erudite words of the first day’s contributors, at times there can be a sense of, ‘Wait – haven’t things moved on from there already?’ So it was with the protracted focus on academic libraries and the rallying cries of the need for them to rise to the ‘new’ challenges during the first panel session chaired by Edinburgh’s Geoffrey Boulton, focused ostensibly on international comparisons. Librarians – making up only part of the diverse audience – were asking each other during the break and on twitter, isn’t that exactly what they have been doing in recent years, since for example, the NSF requirements in the States and the RCUK and especially EPSRC rules in the UK, for data management planning and data sharing? Certainly the education and skills of data curators as taught in iSchools (formerly Library Schools) has been a mainstay of IDCC topics in recent years, this one being no exception.

But has anything really changed significantly, either in libraries or more importantly across academia since digital curation entered the namespace a decade ago? This was the focus of a panel led by the proudly impatient Carly Strasser, who has no time for ‘slow’ culture change, and provocatively assumes ‘we’ must be doing something wrong. She may be right, but the panel was divided. Tim DiLauro observed that some disciplines are going fast and some are going slow – depending on whether technology is helping them get the business of research done. And even within disciplines there are vast differences –-perhaps proving the adage that ‘the future is here, it’s just not distributed yet’.

panel session

Carly Strasser’s Panel Session, IDCC15

Geoffrey Bilder spoke of tipping points by looking at how recently DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers, used in journal publishing) meant nothing to researchers and how they have since caught on like wildfire. He also pointed blame at the funding system which focuses on short-term projects and forces researchers to disguise their research bids as infrastructure bids – something they rightly don’t care that much about in itself. My own view is that we’re lacking a killer app, probably because it’s not easy to make sustainable and robust digital curation activity affordable and time-rewarding, never mind profitable. (Tim almost said this with his comparison of smartphone adoption). Only time will tell if one of the conference sponsors proves me wrong with its preservation product for institutions, Rosetta.

It took long-time friend of the DCC Clifford Lynch to remind us in the closing summary (day 1) of exactly where it was we wanted to get to, a world of useful, accessible and reproducible research that is efficiently solving humanity’s problems (not his words). Echoing Carly’s question, he admitted bafflement that big changes in scholarly communication always seem to be another five years away, deducing that perhaps the changes won’t be coming from the publishers after all. As ever, he shone a light on sticking points, such as the orthogonal push for human subject data protection, calling for ‘nuanced conversations at scale’ to resolve issues of data availability and access to such datasets.

Perhaps the UK and Scotland in particular are ahead in driving such conversations forward; researchers at the University of Edinburgh co-authored a report two years ago for the government on “Public Acceptability of Data Sharing Between the Public, Private and Third Sectors for Research Purposes,” as a pre-cursor to innovations in providing researchers with secure access to individual National Health Service records linked to other forms of administrative data when informed consent is not possible to achieve.

Given the weight of this societal and moral barrier to data sharing, and the spread of topics over the last 10 years of conferences, I quite agree with Laurence Horton, one of the panelists, who said that the DCC should give a particular focus to the Social Sciences at next year’s conference.

Robin Rice
Data Librarian (and former Project Coordinator, DCC)
University of Edinburgh

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Non-standard research outputs

I recently attended (13th May 2014) the one-day ‘Non-standard Research Outputs’ workshop at Nottingham Trent University.

[ 1 ] The day started with Prof Tony Kent and his introduction to some of the issues associated with managing and archiving non-text based research outputs. He posed the question: what uses do we expect these outcomes to have in the future? By trying to answer this question, we can think about the information that needs to be preserved with the output and how to preserve both, output and its documentation. He distinguished three common research outcomes in arts-humanities research contexts:

  • Images. He showed us an image of a research output from a fashion design researcher. The issue with research outputs like this one is that they are not always self explanatory, and quite often open up the question of what is recorded in the image, and what the research outcome actually is. In this case, the image contained information about a new design for a heel of a shoe, but the research outcome itself, the heel, wasn’t easily identifiable, and without further explanation (description metadata), the record would be rendered unusable in the future.
  • Videos. The example used to explain this type of non-text based research output was a video featuring some of the research of Helen Storey. The video contains information about the project Wonderland and how textiles dissolve in water and water bottles disintegrate. In the video, researchers explain how creativity and materials can be combined to address environmental issues. Videos like this one contain both, records of the research outcome in action (exhibition) and information about what the research outcome is and how the project ideas developed. These are very valuable outcomes, but they contain so much information that it’s difficult to untangle what is the outcome and what is information about the outcome.
YouTube Preview Image
  • Statements. Drawing from his experience, he referred to researchers in fashion and performance arts to explain this research outcome, but I would say it applies to other researchers in humanities and artistic disciplines as well. The issue with these research outcomes is the complexity of the research problems the researchers are addressing and the difficulty of expressing and describing what their research is about, and how the different elements that compose their research project outcomes interact with each other. How much text do we need to understand non-text-based research outcomes such as images and videos? How important is the description of the overall project to understand the different research outcomes?

Other questions that come to mind when thinking about collecting and archiving non-standard research outputs such as exhibitions are: ‘what elements of the exhibition do we need to capture? Do we capture the pieces exhibited individually or collectively? How can audio/visual documentation convey the spatial arrangements of these pieces and their interrelations? What exactly constitutes the research outputs? Installation plans, cards, posters, dresses, objects, images, print-outs, visualisations, visitors comments, etc.? We also discussed how to structure data in a repository for artefacts that go into different exhibitions and installations. How to define a practice-based research output that has a life in its own? How do we address this temporal element, the progression and growth of the research output? This flowchart might be useful. Shared with permission of James Toon and collaborators.

Non-standard_research_outputs

Sketch from group discussion about artefacts and research practices that are ephemeral. How to capture the artefact as well as spatial information, notes, context, images, etc.

[ 2 ] After these first insights into the complexity of what non-standard research outcomes are, Stephanie Meece from the University of the Arts London (UAL) discussed her experience as institutional manager of the UAL repository. This repository is for research outputs, but they have also set up another repository for research data which is currently not publicly available. The research output repository has thousands of deposits, but the data repository has ingested only one dataset in its first two months of existence. The dataset in question is related to a media-archaeology research project where a number of analogue-based media (tapes) are being digitised. This reinforced my suspicion that researchers in the arts and humanities are ready and keen to deposit final research outputs, but are less inclined to deposit their core data, the primary sources from which their research outputs derive.

The UAL learned a great deal about non-standard research outputs through the KULTUR project, a Jisc funded project focused on developing repository solutions for the arts. Practice-based research methods engage with theories and practices in a different way than more traditional research methods. In their enquiries about specific metadata for the arts, the KULTUR project identified that metadata fields like ‘collaborators’ were mostly applicable to the arts (see metadata report, p. 25), and that this type of metadata fields differed from ‘data creator’ or ‘co-author.’ Drawing from this, we should certainly reconsider the metadata fields as well as the wording we use in our repositories to accommodate the needs of researchers in the arts.

Other examples of institutional repositories for the arts shown were VADS (University of the Creative Arts) and RADAR (Glasgow School of Art).

[ 3 ] Afterwards, Bekky Randall made a short presentation in which she explained that non-standard research outputs have a much wider variety of formats than standard text-based outputs. She also explained the importance of getting the researchers to do their own deposits, as they are the ones that know the information required for metadata fields. Once researchers find out what is involved in depositing their research, they will be more aware of what is needed, and get involved earlier with research data management (RDM). This might involve researchers depositing throughout the whole research project instead of at the end when they might have forgotten much of the information related to their files. Increasingly, research funders require data management plans, and there are tools to check what they expect researchers to do in terms of publication and sharing. See SHERPA for more information.

[ 4 ] The presentation slot after lunch is always challenging, but Prof Tom Fisher kept us awake with his insights into non-standard research outcomes. In the arts and humanities it’s sometimes difficult to separate insights from the data. He opened up the question of whether archiving research is mainly for Research Excellence Framework (REF) purposes. His point was to delve into the need to disseminate, access and reuse research outputs in the arts beyond REF. He argued that current artistic practice relates more to the present context (contemporary practice-based research) than to the past. In my opinion, arts and humanities always refer to their context but at the same time look back into the past, and are aware they cannot dismiss the presence of the past. For that reason, it seems relevant to archive current research outputs in the arts, because they will be the resources that arts and humanities researchers might want to use in the future.

He spent some time discussing the Journal for Artistic Research (JAR). This journal was designed taking into account the needs of artistic research (practice-based methodologies and research outcomes in a wide range of media), which do not lend themselves to the linearity of text-based research. The journal is peer-review and this process is made as transparent as possible by publishing the peer-reviews along with the article. Here is an example peer-review of an article submitted to JAR by ECA Professor Neil Mulholland.

[ 5 ] Terry Bucknell delivered a quick introduction to figshare. In his presentation he explained the origins of the figshare repository, and how the platform has improved its features to accommodate non-standard research outputs. The platform was originally thought for sharing scientific data, but has expanded its capabilities to appeal to all disciplines. If you have an ORCID account you can now connect it to figshare.

[ 6 ] The last presentation of the day was delivered by Martin Donnelly from the Digital Curation Centre (DCC) who gave a refreshing view into data management for the arts. He pointed out the issue of a scientifically-centred understanding of research data management, and that in order to reach the arts and humanities research community, we might need to change the wording, and change the word ‘data’ for ‘stuff’ when referring to creative research outputs. This reminded me of the paper ‘Making Sense: Talking Data Management with Researchers’ by Catharine Ward et al. (2011) and the Data Curation Profiles that Jane Furness, Academic Support Librarian, created after interviewing two researchers at Edinburgh College of Art, available here.

Quoting from his slides “RDM is the active management and appraisal of data over all the lifecycle of scholarly research.” In the past, data in the sciences was not curated or taken care of after the publication of articles; now this process has changed and most science researchers already actively manage their data throughout the research project. This could be extended to arts and humanities research. Why wait to do it at the end?

The main argument for RDM and data sharing is transparency. The data is available for scrutiny and replication of findings. Sharing is most important when events cannot be replicated, such as performance or a census survey. In the scientific context ‘data’ stands for evidence, but in the arts and humanities this does not apply in the same way. He then referred to the work of Leigh Garrett, and how data gets reused in the arts. Researchers in the arts reuse research outputs but there is the fear of fraud, because some people might not acknowledge the data sources from which their work derives. To avoid this, there is the tendency to have longer embargoes in humanities and arts than in sciences.

After Martin’s presentation, we called it a day. While, waiting for my train at Nottingham Station, I noticed I had forgotten my phone (and the flower sketch picture with it), but luckily Prof Tony Kent came to my rescue, and brought the phone to the station. Thanks to Tony and Off-Peak train tickets, I was able to travel back home on the day.

Rocio von Jungenfeld
Data Library Assistant

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IDCC 2014 – take home thoughts

A few weeks ago I attended the 9th International Digital Curation Conference in San Francisco.  The conference was spread over four days, with two days for workshops, and two for the main conference.  The conference was jointly run by the Digital Curation Centre and the California Digital Library.  Unsurprisingly it was an excellent conference with much debate and discussion about the evolving needs for digital curation of research data.

San Francisco

The main points I took home from the conference were:

Science is changing: Atul Butte gave an inspiring keynote that contained an overview of the ways in which his own work is changing.  In particular he explained how it is now possible to ‘outsource’ parts of the scientific process. The first is the ability to visit a web site to buy tissue samplesfor specific diseases which were previously used for medical tests, but which have now been anonymised and collected rather than being discarded.  Secondly it is also now possible to order mouse trials to be undertaken, again via a web site.  These allow routine activities to be performed more quickly and cheaply.

Big Data: This phrase is often used and means different things to different people.  A nice definition given by Jane Hunter was that curation of big data is hard because of its volume, velocity, variety and veracity.  She followed this up by some good examples where data have been effectively used.

Skills need to be taught: There were several sessions about the role of Information Schools in educating a new breed of information professionals with the skills required to effectively handle the growing requirements of analysing and curating data.  This growth was demonstrated by how we are seeing many more job titles such as data engineer / analyst / steward / journalist.  It was proposed that library degrees should include more technical skills such as programming and data formats.

The Data paper: There was much discussion about the concept of a ‘Data Paper’ – a short journal paper that describes a data set.  It was seen as an important element in raising the profile of the creation of re-usable data sets.  Such papers would be citable and trackable in the same ways as journal papers, and could therefore contribute to esteem indicators.  There was a mix of traditional and new publishers with varying business models for achieving this.  One point that stood out for me was that publishers were not proposing to archive the data, only the associated data paper.  The archiving would need to take place elsewhere.

Tools are improving: I attended a workshop about Data Management in the Cloud, facilitated by Microsoft Research.  They gave a demo of some of the latest features of Excel.  Many of the new features seem to nicely fit into two camps, but equally useful and very powerful to both.  Whether you are looking at data from the perspective of business intelligence or research data analysis, tools such as Excel are now much more than a spreadsheet for adding up numbers.  They can import, manipulate, and display data in many new and powerful ways.

I was also able to present a poster that contains some of the evolving thoughts about data curation systems at the University of Edinburgh: http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.902835

In his closing reflection of the conference, Clifford Lynch said that we need to understand how much progress we are making with data curation.  It will be interesting to see the progress made and what new issues are being discussed at the conference next year which will be held much closer to home in London.

Stuart Lewis
Head of Research and Learning Services
Library & University Collections, Information Services

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SCAPE workshop (notes, part 2)

Drawing on my notes from the SCAPE (Scalable Preservation Environments) workshop I attended last year, here is a summary of the presentation delivered by Peter May (BL) and the activities that were introduced during the hands-on training session.

Peter May (British Library)

To contextualise the activities and the tools we used during the workshop, Peter May presented a case study from the British Library (BL). The BL is a legal deposit archive that among many other resources archives newspapers. This type of item (newspaper) is one of the most brittle in their archive, because it is very sensitive and prone to disintegrate even in optimal preservation conditions (humidity and light controlled environment). With support from Jisc (2007, 2009) and through their current partnership with brightsolid, the BL has been digitising this part of the collection, at a current digitisation rate of about 8000 scans per day.

BL’s main concern is how to ensure long term preservation and access to the newspaper collection, and how to make digitisation processes cost effective (larger files require more storage space, so less storage needed per file means more digitised objects). As part of the digitisation projects, BL had to reflect on:

  • How would the end-user want to engage with the digitised objects?
  • What file format would suit all those potential uses?
  • How will the collection be displayed online?
  • How to ensure smooth network access to the collection?

As an end-user, you might want to browse thumbnails in the newspaper collection, or you might want to zoom in and read through the text. In order to have the flexibility to display images at different resolutions when required, the BL has to scan the newspapers at high resolution. JPEG2000 has proved to be the most flexible format for displaying images at different resolutions (thumbnails, whole images, image tiles). The BL investigated how to migrate from TIFF to JPEG2000 format to enable this flexibility in access, as well as to reduce the size of files, and thereby the cost of storage and preservation management. A JPEG2000 file is normally half the size of a TIFF file.

At this stage, the SCAPE workflow comes into play. In order to ensure that it was safe to delete the original TIFF files after the migration into JPEG2000, the BL team needed to make quality checks across all the millions of files they were migrating.

For the SCAPE work at the BL, Peter May and the team tested a number of tools and created a workflow to migrate files and perform quality checks. For the migration process they tested codecs such as kakadu and openJPEG, and for checking the integrity of the JPEG2000 and how the format complied with institutional policies and preservation needs, they used Jpylyzer. Other tools such as Matchbox (for image feature analysis and duplication identification) or exifTool (an image metadata extractor, that can be used to find out details about the provenance of the file and later on to compare metadata after migration) were tested within the SCAPE project at the BL. To ensure the success of the migration process, the BL developed their in-house code to compare, at scale, the different outputs of the above mentioned tools.

Peter May’s presentation slides can be found on the Open Planets Foundation wiki.

Hands-on training session

After Peter May’s presentation, the SCAPE workshop team guided us through an activity in which we checked if original TIFFs had migrated to JPEG2000s successfully. For this we used the TIFF compare command (tiffcmp). We first migrated from TIFF to JPEG2000 and then converted JPEG2000 back into TIFF. In both migrations we used tiffcmp to check (bit by bit) if the file had been corrupted (bitstream comparison to check fixity), and if the compression and decompression processes were reliable.

The intention of the exercise was to show the process of migration at small scale. However, when digital preservation tasks (migration, compression, validation, metadata extraction, comparison) have to be applied to thousands of files, a single processor would take a lot of time to run the tasks, and for that reason parallelisation is a good idea. SCAPE has been working on parallelisation and how to divide tasks using computational nodes to deal with big loads of data all at once.

SCAPE uses Taverna workbench to create tailored workflows. To run a preservation workflow you do not need Taverna, because many of the tools that can be incorporated into Taverna can be used as standalone tools such as FITS, a File Information Tool Set that “identifies, validates, and extracts technical metadata for various file formats”. However, Taverna offers a good solution for digital preservation workflows, since you can create a workflow that includes all the tools that you need. The ideal use of Taverna in digital preservation is to choose different tools at different stages of the workflow, depending on the digital preservation requirements of your data.

Related links:

http://openplanetsfoundation.org/
http://wiki.opf-labs.org/display/SP/Home
http://www.myExperiment.org/

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