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May 05, 2010

The future of UK Dublin Core application profiles

I spent yesterday morning up at UKOLN (at the University of Bath) for a brief meeting about the future of JISC-funded Dublin Core application profile development in the UK.

I don't intend to report on the outcomes of the meeting here since it is not really my place to do so (I was just invited as an interested party and I assume that the outcomes of the meeting will be made public in due course). However, attending the meeting did make me think about some of the issues around the way application profiles have tended to be developed to date and these are perhaps worth sharing here.

By way of background, the JISC have been funding the development of a number of Dublin Core application profiles in areas such as scholarly works, images, time-based media, learning objects, GIS and research data over the last few years.  An application profile provides a model of some subset of the world of interest and an associated set of properties and controlled vocabularies that can be used to describe the entities in that model for the purposes of some application (or service) within a particular domain. The reference to Dublin Core implies conformance with the DCMI Abstract Model (which effectively just means use of the RDF model) and an inherent preference for the use of Dublin Core terms whenever possible.

The meeting was intended to help steer any future UK work in this area.

I think (note that this blog post is very much a personal view) that there are two key aspects of the DC application profile work to date that we need to think about.

Firstly, DC application profiles are often developed by a very small number of interested parties (sometimes just two or three people) and where engagement in the process by the wider community is quite hard to achieve. This isn't just a problem with the UK JISC-funded work on application profiles by the way. Almost all of the work undertaken within the DCMI community on application profiles suffers from the same problem - mailing lists and meetings with very little active engagement beyond a small core set of people.

Secondly, whilst the importance of enumerating the set of functional requirements that the application profile is intended to meet has not been underestimated, it is true to say that DC application profiles are often developed in the absence of an actual 'software application'. Again, this is also true of the application profile work being undertaken by the DCMI. What I mean here is that there is not a software developer actually trying to build something based on the application profile at the time it is being developed. This is somewhat odd (to say the least) given that they are called application profiles!

Taken together, these two issues mean that DC application profiles often take on a rather theoretical status - and an associated "wouldn't it be nice if" approach. The danger is a growth in the complexity of the application profile and a lack of any real business drivers for the work.

Speaking from the perspective of the Scholarly Works Application Profile (SWAP) (the only application profile for which I've been directly responsible), in which we adopted the use of FRBR, there was no question that we were working to a set of perceived functional requirements (e.g. "people need to be able to find the latest version of the current item"). However, we were not driven by the concrete needs of a software developer who was in the process of building something. We were in the situation where we could only assume that an application would be built at some point in the future (a UK repository search engine in our case). I think that the missing link to an actual application, with actual developers working on it, directly contributed to the lack of uptake of the resulting profile. There were other factors as well of course - the conceptual challenge of basing the work on FRBR and that fact that existing repository software was not RDF-ready for example - but I think that was the single biggest factor overall.

Oddly, I think JISC funding is somewhat to blame here because, in making funding available, JISC helps the community to side-step the part of the business decision-making that says, "what are the costs (in time and money) of developing, implementing and using this profile vs. the benefits (financial or otherwise) that result from its use?".

It is perhaps worth comparing current application profile work and other activities. Firstly, compare the progress of SWAP with the progress of the Common European Research Information Format (CERIF), about which the JISC recently reported:

EXRI-UK reviewed these approaches against higher education needs and recommended that CERIF should be the basis for the exchange of research information in the UK. CERIF is currently better able to encode the rich information required to communicate research information, and has the organisational backing of EuroCRIS, ensuring it is well-managed and sustainable.

I don't want to compare the merits of these two approaches at a technical level here. What is interesting however, is that if CERIF emerges as the mandated way in which research information is shared in the UK then there will be a significant financial driver to its adoption within systems in UK institutions. Research information drives a significant chunk of institutional funding which, in turn, drives compliance in various applications. If the UK research councils say, "thou shalt do CERIF", that is likely what institutions will do.  They'll have no real choice. SWAP has no such driver, financial or otherwise.

Secondly, compare the current development of Linked Data applications within the UK data.gov.uk initiative with the current application profile work. Current government policy in the UK effectively says, 'thou shalt do Linked Data' but isn't really any more prescriptive. It encourages people to expose their data as Linked Data and to develop useful applications based on that data. Ignoring any discussion about whether Linked Data is a good thing or not, what has resulted is largely ground-up. Individual developers are building stuff and, in the process, are effectively developing their own 'application profiles' (though they don't call them that) as part of exposing/using the Linked Data. This approach results in real activity. But it also brings with it the danger of redundancy, in that every application developer may model their Linked Data differently, inventing their own RDF properties and so on as they see fit.

As Paul Walk noted at the meeting yesterday, at some stage there will be a huge clean-up task to make any widespread sense of the UK government-related Linked Data that is out there. Well, yes... there will. Conversely, there will be no clean up necessary with SWAP because nobody will have implemented it.

Which situation is better!? :-)

I think the issue here is partly to do with setting the framework at the right level. In trying to specify a particular set of application profiles, the JISC is setting the framework very tightly - not just saying, "you must use RDF" or "you must use Dublin Core" but saying "you must use Dublin Core in this particular way". On the other hand, the UK government have left the field of play much more open. The danger with the DC application profile route is lack of progress. The danger with the government approach is too little consistency.

So, what are the lessons here? The first, I think, is that it is important to lobby for your prefered technical solution at a policy level as well as at a technical level. If you believe that a Linked Data-compliant Dublin Core application profile is the best technical way of sharing research information in the UK then it is no good just making that argument to software developers and librarians. Decisions made by the research councils (in this case) will be binding irrespective of technical merit and will likely trump any decisions made by people on the ground.

The second is that we have to understand the business drivers for the adoption, or not, of our technical solutions rather better than we do currently. Who makes the decisions? Who has the money? What motivates the different parties? Again, technically beautiful solutions won't get adopted if the costs of adoption are perceived to outweigh the benefits, or if the people who hold the purse strings don't see any value in spending their money in that particular way, or if people simply don't get it.

Finally, I think we need to be careful that centralised, top-down, initiatives (particularly those with associated funding) don't distort the environment to such an extent that the 'real' drivers, both financial and user-demand, can be ignored in the short term, leading to unsustainable situations in the longer term. The trick is to pump-prime those things that the natural drivers will support in the long term - not always an easy thing to pull off.

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