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August 24, 2010

Resource discovery revisited...

...revisited for me that is!

Last week I attended an invite-only meeting at the JISC offices in London, notionally entitled a "JISC IE Technical Review" but in reality a kind of technical advisory group for the JISC and RLUK Resource Discovery Taskforce Vision [PDF], about which the background blurb says:

The JISC and RLUK Resource Discovery Taskforce was formed to focus on defining the requirements for the provision of a shared UK resource discovery infrastructure to support research and learning, to which libraries, archives, museums and other resource providers can contribute open metadata for access and reuse.

The morning session felt slightly weird (to me), a strange time-warp back to the kinds of discussions we had a lot of as the UK moved from the eLib Programme, thru the DNER (briefly) into what became known (in the UK) as the JISC Information Environment - discussions about collections and aggregations and metadata harvesting and ... well, you get the idea.

In the afternoon we were split into breakout groups and I ended up in the one tasked with answering the question "how do we make better websites in the areas covered by the Resource Discovery Taskforce?", a slightly strange question now I look at it but one that was intended to stimulate some pragmatic discussion about what content providers might actually do.

Paul Walk has written up a general summary of the meeting - the remainder of this post focuses on the discussion in the 'Making better websites' afternoon breakout group and my more general thoughts.

Our group started from the principles of Linked Data - assign 'http' URIs to everything of interest, serve useful content (both human-readable and machine-processable (structured according to the RDF model)) at those URIs, and create lots of links between stuff (internal to particular collections, across collections and to other stuff). OK... we got slightly more detailed than that but it was a fairly straight-forward view that Linked Data would help and was the right direction to go in. (Actually, there was a strongly expressed view that simply creating 'http' URIs for everything and exposing human-readable content at those URIs would be a huge step forward).

Then we had a discussion about what the barriers to adoption might be - the problems of getting buy-in from vendors and senior management, the need to cope with a non-obvious business model (particularly in the current economic climate), the lack of technical expertise (not to mention semantic expertise) in parts of those sectors, the endless discussions that might take place about how to model the data in RDF, the general perception that Semantic Web is permanently just over the horizon and so on.

And, in response, we considered the kinds of steps that JISC (and its partners) might have to undertake to build any kind of political momentum around this idea.

To cut a long story short, we more-or-less convinced ourselves out of a purist Linked Data approach as a way forward, instead preferring a 4 layer model of adoption, with increasing levels of semantic richness and machine-processability at each stage:

  1. expose data openly in any format available (.csv files, HTML pages, MARC records, etc.)
  2. assign 'http' URIs to things of interest in the data, expose it in any format available (.csv files, HTML pages, etc.) and serve useful content at each URI
  3. assign 'http' URIs to things of interest in the data, expose it as XML and serve useful content at each URI
  4. assign 'http' URIs to things of interest in the data and expose Linked Data (as per the discussion above).

These would not be presented as steps to go thru (do 1, then 2, then 3, ...) but as alternatives with increasing levels of semantic value. Good practice guidance would encourage the adoption of option 4, laying out the benefits of such an approach, but the alternatives would provide lower barriers to adoption and offer a simpler 'sell' politically.

The heterogeneity of data being exposed would leave a significant implementation challenge for the aggregation services attempting to make use of it and the JISC (and partners) would have to fund some pretty convincing demonstrators of what might usefully be achieved.

One might characterise these approaches as 'data.glam.uk' (echoing 'data.gov.uk' but where 'glam' is short for 'galleries, libraries, archives and museums') and/or Digital UK (echoing the pragmatic approaches being successfully adopted by the Digital NZ activity in New Zealand).

Despite my reservations about the morning session, the day ended up being quite a useful discussion. That said, I remain somewhat uncomfortable with its outcomes. I'm a purest at heart and the 4 levels above are anything but pure. To make matters worse, I'm not even sure that they are pragmatic. The danger is that people will adopt only the lowest, least semantic, option and think they've done what they need to do - something that I think we are seeing some evidence of happening within data.gov.uk. 

Perhaps even more worryingly, having now stepped back from the immediate talking-points of the meeting itself, I'm not actually sure we are addressing a real user need here any more - the world is so different now than it was when we first started having conversations about exposing cultural heritage collections on the Web, particularly library collections - conversations that essentially pre-dated Google, Google Scholar, Amazon, WorldCat, CrossRef, ... the list goes on. Do people still get agitated by, for example, the 'book discovery' problem in the way they did way back then? I'm not sure... but I don't think I do. At the very least, the book 'discovery' problem has largely become an 'appropriate copy' problem - at least for most people? Well, actually, let's face it... for most people the book 'discovery' and 'appropriate copy' problems have been solved by Amazon!

I also find the co-location of libraries, museums and archives, in the context of this particular discussion, rather uncomfortable. If anything, this grouping serves only to prolong the discussion and put off any decision making?

Overall then, I left the meeting feeling somewhat bemused about where this current activity has come from and where it is likely to go.



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