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December 07, 2007

CRIG unconference

I attended the first day of a two-day CRIG Unconference yesterday.  What's CRIG?  What's an unconference?  Well, CRIG is the Common Repository Interfaces Group, a JISC initiative to develop the community's thinking around repository technology and, in particular, repository APIs.  And an unconference is essentially a conference without a pre-determined agenda - delegates develop one dynamically as the conference proceeds.

I came away from the day with both positive and negative thoughts - largely positive about the day itself, largely negative about the wider context within which the day took place.  (Remember that I only attended the first day, so my views may be premature).

Overall, I felt that the unconference aspects of the day worked pretty well, and it'll be interesting to see how things progress today.  Certainly, as a community-building and brainstorming forum I think the approach was very successful and well run.

That said, I have two minor comments... firstly, the day started with a presentation about SWORD - an attempt to use the Atom Publishing Protocol to define a 'deposit' API for repositories.  Not that there was anything wrong with the presentation itself (thanks Julie) but it just seemed out of place to me to start an unconference with a scheduled presentation about one particular bit of technology.  Isn't the whole point that the delegates themselves should have driven the day towards that presentation - rather than having it as a kick-off?  Similarly, CRIG had developed a series of podcasts and associated mindmaps prior to the event and these were used as the initial focus of discussion.  Again, this material was a useful resource, but by the end of the day I wondered if its use to frame our brainstorming had steered us in particular directions from the outset?

Regular readers will know that I have a personal problem with the community's overarching emphasis on the 'R' word (as opposed to simply thinking about surfacing content on the Web) and even more so with the 'IR' words.  Look back at our previous blog entries on this subject if you want to know more.  This particular meeting sat firmly within that context.  About half-way thru the initial brainstorming Paul Walk of UKOLN remarked:

Wouldn't it be great if the outcome of this unconference was that repositories were just wrong?

Well, yes.  I think he was joking, btw?  Whatever... that sentence more or less captures my thinking on the subject.  But there's no way that particular meeting could have come to that conclusion because the 'R' word solution is now so firmly engrained in national policy and direction.

It's a bit like the difference between the NHS funding research into "the treatment and prevention of the common cold" and them funding research into "the treatment and prevention of the common cold using chicken soup".  Both will result in some interesting research, discussion, papers, etc.  But one focuses on the problem, the other on a particular solution to the problem.  What's the essential problem in our case - i.e. what should we be focusing on?  Surfacing academic content on the Web in ways that maximise the benefits of open access.


Apologies... I've calmed down now.

Despite my negativity I did bring away some positives...  I noted both "We don't need any more standards" and "Death to packages" written on flip charts, which I'll conveniently interpret in my own terms to mean, "We don't need any more community-specific standards" and "Death to content-packaging standards", though I suspect in the case of the first, this isn't what was intended.  The fact that the glaring omission of Google from the podcast and mind map about 'search' was noted by almost everyone.  A more general willingness to see the Flickrs of this world as good exemplars of what repository-type services should be like.  A more widespread recognition that we tend to over complicate our solutions in technical interoperability terms.  Some recognition that tagging and full-text indexing are at least as important as metadata (as we tend to use that term in the context of repositories).

OK, I'll admit it, I am tending to selectively see my own view of the world in other people's comments here!

Anyway... overall, the first day of the unconference was pretty good and I look forward to seeing the results of the second day.  However you choose to interpret this particular report, CRIG is definitely worth keeping an eye on as this whole area evolves.


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I thought Julie's presentation of SWORD was a master-stroke. It was the presentation of a project addressing a scenario in the CRIG domain (which was relevant, if a bit formal in and of itself), but that wasn't the brilliant bit. The brilliant bit was that she did it backwards, starting off with the project outputs and results and working her way UP towards the problems and discussions that had prompted the activity. In other words, in the context of the CRIG, it was the problems and the whining and the ideas that were the significant, not the highly polished solutions.

your rant sure does ring true to me. i actually start thinking repositories are not only a specific solution to the problem, but have become part of the problem - or at least introduced a new set of problems. seeing all this struggling for content, getting as absurd as to re-import stuff from one repos to the other just to up item numbers, makes me feel we've lost perspective: just publish stuff and let the web do its thing. i.e. indexing, adding network effects, etc. repositories just seem to consume too much energy, brain, and enthusiasm, which could better be spent on the way easier target of surfacing stuff.

"Wouldn't it be great if the outcome of this unconference was that repositories were just wrong?"

Actually, this was intended as a sarcastic response to someone who had made the comment that "repositories are all wrong"....


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