ResearchSpace Conceptual Framework

Original paper - Feb 2010

Introduction


Initial discussions about the development of a shared technology infrastructure (now known as ResearchSpace) were initiated and sponsored by the Museums and Art Conservation program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This infrastructure is intended to support internet collaboration, research, information sharing and publication within the cultural heritage scholarly community. The ResearchSpace environment would include the following elements:

• Internet hosting
• Collaboration tools
• Data and digital management tools
• Data and digital analysis tools
• Internet design and authoring tools

This highly configurable technical architecture will have both technical and process synergies with Mellon’s evolving CollectionSpace and ConservationSpace initiatives which aim to produce next generation collection and conservation systems. However, ResearchSpace will also support data exchange with other systems on the market; it will provide a range of flexible tools (for non-technical researchers and content authors) to support a wide range of workflows, and will develop these tools on an ongoing basis.

Semantic technology will be at the core of the ResearchSpace infrastructure since it provides an effective mechanism for collaboration and integration among different projects. ResearchSpace will aim to reduce the costs of developing and operating new and innovative systems, creating a more sustainable research and production environment. It will be an enabling environment that will develop over time through the contributions of those who use it. It will keep central edicts to the minimum necessary to maintain its objectives.

Internet Research Projects - The Information Technology Problem

Currently each web-based prototype supported by the Mellon Foundation would need its own individual budget for purchasing and developing information technology, and each would manage the setup and development of the IT required to support its project objectives. As a result, each prototype uses different hardware and software solutions, depending on the preferences of the initiating organisation, or even the preferences of the IT personnel involved.

This method of funding information technology has three major disadvantages. First, although the infrastructure required to support one project might also support the others, separate costs are inevitably incurred to establish separate IT environments. Each project might use a different service provider, different application software and different database technology, although many of these technology choices may have little or no significance for the project teams themselves or their research agendas.

Second, separate IT implementations make it difficult and costly for projects to share tools and information. A software tool may be developed for one project, but significant additional resources or costs might be required to make it compatible with the IT environment of another. Data sharing among projects would be difficult to achieve, partly due to the different database technologies involved, partly to the differences in data schemas and structures.

Third, the scholars who lead initiatives find themselves spending significant time organising, administering and resolving information technology issues (tasks for which they are ill equipped), and time that would be far better spent on research.

As projects develop the problems identified above become more acute. They not only demand greater resources to resolve, but they prevent the initiatives from reaching their full potential, incurring the rising costs of continued IT development, and failing to enable interoperability with related initiatives.

The ResearchSpace Solution


ResearchSpace is envisaged as an IT environment that would support all current and future web-based research initiatives and resolve problems such as those identified above. It would be a readymade but flexible framework offered to projects at a cost lower than that of commercial web hosting. ResearchSpace would offer all of the features and functionality provided by the IT environments currently used by the existing prototypes (and have at least the same level of management and control) but would also provide two fundamental features not readily available to the prototypes:

• A continually developing set of tools and services, useable by non-technical team members, available for supporting different workflows and functional requirements.
• The ability to reuse data among different projects without expensive integration and development work.

How would ResearchSpace work


ResearchSpace would allow organisations to synchronise data from their own internal collection and conservations systems with a data store located on the ResearchSpace hosting environment. This means that local data administration would be unaffected by participation in ResearchSpace but, because ResearchSpace could store data from different sources using the same database technology, it could be used across different initiatives.

Once the link between a local database and ResearchSpace is established, little effort would be required for organisations to maintain it, and local IT personnel would be relieved of unnecessary support and maintenance burdens.

Once content is made available in the ResearchSpace environment, project members would be able to use it with a variety of readymade tools, configured to reflect the needs of any particular project. As projects with different requirements are added to ResearchSpace, new tools addressing their functional requirements would be developed, and could be used by all at no additional cost.

ResearchSpace could be used for a variety of different projects including:

  • A web database to support internet presentation, either developed on ResearchSpace or any other web site. (User interfaces on other web sites would be able to make use of the data stored on ResearchSpace.)
  • A host for central databases of supporting material, people and information
  • Discussion and exchange forums with online analysis tools
  • Collaborative analysis and academic publication
  • Combination of the above

The combination of these different tools would act as a catalyst for generating new ideas and research
agendas. The availability of an increasing store of accessible data produced by users of ResearchSpace would provide the foundation to sustain and develop existing projects, as well as to initiate others. This dynamic would be further sustained by making ResearchSpace available to all projects regardless of their funding source (and making ResearchSpace cost savings available to other funding agencies).

ResearchSpace would include a comprehensive set of vocabularies and thesauri. Although these may vary from those maintained in local systems, ResearchSpace would support mapping between local and ResearchSpace terms. To ensure that these mappings properly support the original intended meanings, this area of ResearchSpace would be managed and supervised by a carefully selected group representing the requirements of ResearchSpace users.

A sample scenario: an institution that wishes to make its collection and conservation data accessible on the internet, but may not have the infrastructure to do so. Instead it could transfer its data to ResearchSpace and develop its initiative using available ResearchSpace services. Alternatively, it could use the data it has transferred within the user interfaces of its own corporate web site, since (by transferring it to ResearchSpace) it would be available across the internet. Once the data is available within the ResearchSpace environment, any other ResearchSpace initiatives would also have access to that data, and could repurpose it.

Other participants who are interested in some of the issues exposed by these initiatives might set up a discussion forum, which could use information from the individual projects and create annotations and relationships from within the forum. The forum could generate information either for publication or simply to encourage further contributions to support the initiatives. Other ResearchSpace projects could be linked to some of these discussions, providing additional contextual information for the data, and/or directing users of their own sites to the activities of the forum.

As a result of the forum discussion some participants might make use of the information to publish academic papers on ResearchSpace. Others may find that the material collected warrants the launch of a new initiative or collaborative venture.

Governance for ResearchSpace


It is anticipated that ResearchSpace would become part of a representative governance structure that would also include CollectionSpace and ConservationSpace. Because these three efforts have related but very different objectives and are at different stages of development, it would be premature to describe the details of the governance structure at this point. The structure would, however, follow the general principles developed for the governance of other Mellon-funded open source software efforts and have the same general characteristics.

This umbrella organisation would protect the needs of the organisations that use the systems and, in the case of ResearchSpace, ensure that the vision and objectives set out in this document are maintained. It would also be charged with setting out clear policy and practice for ResearchSpace, encouraging greater collaboration, maximising information sharing, security, and intellectual property rights. It would also assume responsibility for marketing the environment to organisations that might benefit from its services.

This governing body would also coordinate and prioritise work among the different systems, making sure that the development undertaken by organisations such as CARET (Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies) are managed in such a way that the benefits are potentially available across all three ‘Spaces’.

Specific Business Objectives


The following business issues are addressed by ResearchSpace

Value for Money

ResearchSpace will be designed to offer best value for money to the organisations that use it, regardless of their source of support; and it would offer a quality of hosting environment that equals (and in many cases surpasses) those used by other organisations in the cultural heritage sector. The cost savings will be realized through economies of scale in the purchase of IT resources and greater efficiency in their use. No other hosting environment is likely to be able to offer the same level of support, tools and access to data that ResearchSpace would provide.

Quality

Initiatives that require funded organisations to make their own individual IT arrangements and decisions will inevitably vary in the quality of the IT environment and development work that results. This can become problematic if participants wish to collaborate and ensure that the technical relationships among their initiatives are robust and reliable. In ResearchSpace the sharing and reuse of tools among different initiatives would be facilitated by a system of quality and version control, providing a level of confidence for all those dependent on them and minimising the amount of rebuilding often required as a result of poor quality or inappropriate software. ResearchSpace aims to raise the quality of the individual initiatives, and thereby contribute to their sustainability.

Representatives to be drawn from users of ResearchSpace and those commissioned to develop it.

Support & Maintenance

  • Individual participating organisations often find themselves having to request outside support to solve technical problems, and in the present environment there is no single framework under which they can either obtain predictable and reliable IT support or share the costs.
  • ResearchSpace would ensure a minimum and cost effective level of technical support, because the infrastructure would be centralised, and access to it, in order to resolve technical issues, would be the same for all organisations.4
  • ResearchSpace would be developed with a robust governance structure to ensure that all support and handover documentation is available to support resources, enabling agencies to reduce costs and risks, which would be understood and mitigated from the outset. The framework (commissioning, development, documentation, training materials and handover) for managing the software tools used in ResearchSpace would guarantee that the support agency (or agencies) would not be confronted by a plethora of unknown and potentially undocumented software.

Sustainability for Projects

It is envisaged that Mellon funding would cover initial development costs but would not provide ongoing operating support, which would have to be provided through other means. ResearchSpace would support organisations to sustain systems once they become operational by providing a robust and quality environment at a reduced cost. In addition, the shared nature of the underlying infrastructure and systems would guarantee that all initiatives would benefit from software developed by others, reducing further development costs. This benefit would, of course, also apply to any new initiatives whatever the source of funding.

ResearchSpace sustainability

The ResearchSpace environment would be based on a highly sustainable model since both current and new Mellon supported initiatives would be encouraged and expected to use the environment, which would also be available to initiatives funded by others. As increasing numbers of organizations make use of the environment, the economies of scale should be significant. Most importantly, the sustainability of ResearchSpace as envisaged would provide reliable access to a rich and growing data and knowledge store, making all initiatives richer and more extensive, while reducing the need for time
consuming sourcing and harvesting of information. If it achieves its goals in this respect, its sustainability is likely to be guaranteed.

Sharing and Collaboration

• The wealth of knowledge about the world’s art and culture is spread across innumerable institutions and countries. Organisations that work in the cultural heritage sector already devote immense effort and resources to the sharing of knowledge and to broaden and deepen understanding.
• The internet provides an ideal catalyst for supporting collaborative work but the full potential of the internet is far from fully realised partly because it remains extremely difficult to harmonize the underlying data that supports much of the research. ResearchSpace would hope to provide an environment for bringing data together and allowing and facilitating inference across that data to uncover new information and inform new research paths.

Dominic Oldman, Feb 2010

Appendix 1 - ResearchSpace Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can’t projects share data from their own IT environments?


• Semantic Technology is designed to bring together data regardless of where it is located on the internet. However, there are currently some practical problems with adopting a semantic approach. Firstly, the technology is not yet widespread and expertise within internal IT departments is not yet established. Secondly, data needs to be organised into a common ontology to provide effective harmonisation of data, a complex process that is unlikely to happen quickly within organisations. Thirdly, semantic tools are still developing. At present, moving data into a common environment reduces risk and costs related to data integration.

Will ResearchSpace have an impact on ownership and management of data?


• No. Organisations would maintain ownership and control of their data. However, ResearchSpace would strongly encourage (and facilitate) sharing of data between projects, and if appropriate, with the rest of the Internet community.

Will organisations that currently host their own web server and IT environment benefit from reduced costs?

• Yes. Organisations often forget to account for the hidden expenses of managing internet servers internally, such as support and maintenance costs and equipment refresh. Internet services, especially those used by other services, require 24 x 7 support because of the negative effect of downtime on their user communities. In a collaborative environment, services become dependent on each other, and thus the costs to maintain 24 x 7 support are reduced when shared within a common infrastructure.

What happens to the cost of using ResearchSpace if the number of organisations using it varies over time?


• The design concept behind ResearchSpace aims to ensure that it would be cheaper than using other hosting solutions. However, organisations must also be protected from large variations of cost from year to year. ResearchSpace would ideally be supported by the Mellon Foundation until participation is sufficient to protect the community against unreasonable cost fluctuations. This could be between 3 – 5 years.

What are the implications for Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)?


• One of the barriers to sharing and collaboration is the differences in organisations’ IPR policies. The ResearchSpace security model would support different IPR profiles. However, ResearchSpace would also encourage movement towards a common approach to IPR in order to facilitate and reduce the overhead from releasing information into the non-commercial arena.

Will ResearchSpace be able to support future project requirements?


• Yes. ResearchSpace would provide the full range of tools that are currently used in other collaborative internet environments. It is a core objective that ResearchSpace adopts new tools and adapts to new requirements and approaches. ResearchSpace would be managed by the organisations that use it, thus ensuring that it remains at the forefront of internet technology.

ResearchSpace be used for general social networking?


• Yes. A particular advantage of ResearchSpace is that it would be able to support the type of social network that museums and other organisations are cautious to introduce on their own web sites. This means that it would be better able to engage with different audiences and inform future strategy and policy.

the ResearchSpace collaboration tools be used without a data project?

• Yes. It is expected that organisations that simply want to use ResearchSpace to communicate with other academics in the community could do so without collecting structured data. However, they would still be able to access the ResearchSpace data stores, if required. Collaborative projects such as these would be likely to incur little or no cost.

Will ResearchSpace software tools be open source?

• Yes. As such, the tools could be downloaded and used freely in any environment, not just within the ResearchSpace environment.

Will I be able to import data from ReasearchSpace to my local system?


• Yes. ResearchSpace would support bi-directional data flow.

Can I store data on ResearchSpace directly?

• Yes. Some organisations will not have an internal data management system supporting their data project. In this case data could be written directly to a ReseachSpace datastore.

Appendix 2 - Other Related Example Initiatives

The UK Government (://data.gov.uk) - The UK government has recently launched a web site that provides access to nearly 3,000 datasets that have been generated by departments. Using the same technology proposed by ResearchSpace, this initiative represents the first large-scale transfer of public data from disparate departmental systems into a semantic database system, resulting in an environment where anyone can undertake to develop tools and services using the open data. These services can span the different sets of data as if held within a single database. The ability to share data from different systems without additional data integration work is a key concept within ResearchSpace. (see also BBC Release - ://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8470797.stm)

The Strategic Content Alliance (://www.jisc.ac.uk/contentalliance) – This initiative seeks to resolve some of the same issues as ResearchSpace (including cost issues) across different bodies in the public sector. Its funders included the Museums Libraries and Archives Council and the BBC. The initiative’s web site states the following:

“There is clearly a risk that without much greater common working our respective contributions in providing access to new digital resources will be limited to individual branded networks, and that users will not fully benefit from the central investment that has been made in these initiatives. Overcoming these barriers requires concerted action on the part of all organisations in the field.”
“The vision is that public sector organisations should be able to work together to ensure that citizens have access to high quality online content that is appropriate to their needs and should not be inhibited in this activity by the technical and organisational structures that dictate, what content can be accessed and how it is presented to the user online.”

DBpedia (://dbpedia.org) – DBpedia is a community effort to extract structured information from Wikipedia and to make this information available on the web using semantic technologies. As the Wikipedia knowledge base expands, more services are being built around it, and many organisations, including the BBC, are now using DBpedia in their internet services. This includes the same type of information that might be found in a collections database. ResearchSpace proposes to become the infrastructure to support a sector-specific semantic data store created and used by the specialists that work with and understand the objects in detail.
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