I spent a large part of last week the week before last (Tuesday, Wednesday & Friday) at the Open Repositories 2008 conference at the University of Southampton.
There were something around 400 delegates there, I think, which I guess is an indicator of the considerable current level of interest around the R-word. Interestingly, if I recall conference chair Les Carr's introductory summary of stats correctly, nearly a quarter of these had described themselves as "developers", so the repository sphere has become a locus for debate around technical issues, as well as the strategic, policy and organisational aspects. The JISC Common Repository Interfaces Group (CRIG) had a visible presence at the conference, thanks to the efforts of David Flanders and his comrades, centred largely around the "Repository Challenge" competition (won by Dave Tarrant, Ben O’Steen and Tim Brody with their "Mining with ORE" entry).
The higher than anticipated number of people did make for some rather crowded sessions at times. There was a long queue for registration, though that was compensated for by the fact that I came away from that process with exactly two small pieces of paper: a name badge inside an envelope on which were printed the login details or the wireless network. (With hindsight, I could probably have done with a one page schedule of what was on in which location - there probably was one which I missed picking up!) Conference bags (in a rather neat "vertical" style which my fashion-spotting companions reliably informed me was a "man bag") were available, but optional. (I was almost tempted, as I do sport such an accessory at weekends, and it was black rather than dayglo orange, but decided to resist on the grounds that there was a high probability of it ending up in the hotel wastepaper bin as I packed up to leave.) Nul points, however, to those advertisers who thought it was a good idea to litter every desktop surface in the crowded lecture theatre with their glossy propaganda, with the result that a good proportion of it ended up on the floor as (newly manbagged-up) delegates squeezed their way to their seats.
The opening keynote was by Peter Murray-Rust of the Unilever Centre for Molecular Informatics, University of Cambridge. With some technical glitches to contend with, which must have been quite daunting in the circumstances - Peter has posted a quick note on his view of the experience! "I have no idea what I said" :-)) - , Peter delivered a somewhat "non-linear" but always engaging and entertaining overview of the role of repositories for scientific data. He noted the very real problem that while ever increasing quantities of data are being generated, very little of it is being successfully captured, stored and made accessible to others. Peter emphasised that any attempt to capture this data effectively must fit in with the existing working practices of scientists, and must be perceived as supporting the primary aims of the scientist, rather than introducing new tasks which might be regarded as tangential to those aims. And the practices of those scientists may, in at least some areas of scientific research, be highly "locally focused" i.e. the scientists see their "allegiances" as primarily to a small team with whom data is shared - at least in the first instance, an approach categorised as "long tail science" (a term attributed to Peter's colleague Jim Downing). Peter supported his discussion with examples drawn from several different e-Chemistry projects and initiatives, including the impressive OSCAR-3 text mining software which extracts descriptions of chemical compounds from documents)
Most of the remainder of the Tuesday and Wednesday I spent in paper sessions. The presentation I enjoyed most was probably a presentation by Jane Hunter from the University of Queensland on the work of the HarvANA project on a distributed approach to annotation and tagging of resources from the Picture Australia collection (in the first instance at least - at the end, Jane whipped through a series of examples of applying the same techniques to other resources). Jane covered a model for annotation on tagging based on the W3C Annotea model, a technical architecture for gathering and merging distributed annotations/taggings (using OAI-PMH to harvest from targets at quite short time intervals (though those intervals could be extended if preferred/required)), browser-based plug-in tools to perform annotation/tagging, and also touched on the relationships between tagging and formally-defined ontologies. The HarvANA retrieval system currently uses an ontology to enhance tag-based retrieval - "ontology-based or ontology-directed folksonomy" - , but the tags provided could also contribute to the development/refinement of that ontology, "folksonomy-directed ontology". Although it was in many ways a repository-centric approach and Jane focused on the use of existing, long-established technologies, she also succeeded in placing repositories firmly in the context of the Web: as systems which enable us to expose collections of resources (and collections of descriptions of those resources), which then enter the Web of relationships with other resources managed and exposed by other systems - here, the collections of annotations exposed by the Annotea servers, but potentially other collections too.
At Wednesday lunch time, (once I managed to find the room!) I contributed to a short "birds of a feather" session co-ordinated by Rosemary Russell of UKOLN and Julie Allinson of the University of York on behalf of the Dublin Core Scholarly Communications Community. We focused mainly on the Scholarly Works Application Profile and its adoption of a FRBR-based model, and talked around the extension of that approach to other resource types which is under consideration in a number of sibling projects currently being funded by JISC. (Rather frustratingly for me, this meeting clashed with another BoF session on Linked Data which I would really have liked to attend!)
I should also mention the tremendously entertaining presentation by Johan Bollen of the Los Alamos National Laboratory on the research into usage metrics carried out by the MESUR project. Yes, I know, "tremendously entertaining" and "usage statistics" aren't the sort of phrases I expect to see used in close proximity either. Johan's base premise was, I think, that seeking to illustrate impact through blunt "popularity" measures was inadequate, and he drew a distinction between citation - the resources which people announce in public that they have read - and usage - the actual resources they have downloaded. Based on a huge dataset of usage statistics provided by a range of popular publishers and aggregators, he explored a variety of other metrics, comparing the (surprisingly similar) rankings of journals obtained via several of these metrics with the rankings provided by the citation-based Thomson impact factor. I'm not remotely qualified to comment on the appropriateness of Johan's choice of algorithms, but the fact that Johan kept a large audience engaged at the end of a very long day was a tribute to his skill as a presenter. (Though I'd still take issue with the Britney (popular but insubstantial?)/Big Star (low-selling but highly influential/lauded by the cognoscenti) opposition: nothing by Big Star can compare with the strutting majesty of "Toxic". No, not even "September Gurls".)
On the Friday, I attended the OAI ORE Information Day, but I'll make that the subject of a separate post.
All in all - give or take a few technical hiccups - it was a successful conference, I think (and thanks to Les and his team for their hard work) - perhaps more so in terms of the "networking" that took place around the formal sessions, and the general "buzz" there seemed to be around the place, than because of any ground-breaking presentations.
And yet, and yet... at the end of the week I did come away from some of the sessions with my niggling misgivings about the "repository-centric" nature of much of the activity I heard described slightly reinforced. Yes, I know: what did I expect to hear at a conference called "Open Repositories"?! :-) But I did feel an awful lot of the emphasis was on how "repository systems" communicate with each other (or how some other app communicates with one repository system and then with another repository system ) e.g. how can I "get something out" of your repository system and "put it into" my repository system, and so on. It seems to me that - at the technical level at least - we need to focus less on seeing repository systems as "specific" and "different" from other Web applications, and focus more on commonalities. Rather than concentrating on repository interfaces we should ensure that repository systems implement the uniform interface defined by the RESTful use of the HTTP protocol. And then we can shift our focus to our data, and to
- the models or ontologies (like FRBR and the CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model, or even basic one-object-is-made-available-in-multiple-formats models) which condition/determine the sets of resources we expose on the Web, and see the use of those models as choices we make rather than something "technologically determined" ("that's just what insert-name-of-repository-software-app-of-choice does");
- the practical implementation of formalisms like RDF which underpin the structure of our representations describing instances of the entities defined by those models, through the adoption of conventions such as those advocated by the Linked Data community
In this world, the focus shifts to "Open (Managed) Collections" (or even "Open Linked Collections"), collections of documents, datasets, images, of whatever resources we choose to model and expose to the world. And as a consumer of those resources I (and, perhaps more to the point, my client applications) really don't need to know whether the system that manages and exposes those collections is a "repository" or a "content management system" or something else (or if the provider changes that system from one day to the next): they apply the same principles to interactions with those resources as they do to any other set of resources on the Web.