This is going to be a difficult blog entry, because I’m going to have to say some nice things about Australia (something most kiwis find difficult). So, on with it.

I’m typing this on a Qantas flight home after a whirlwind speaking tour in Australia:

  • a keynote for a one day workshop in Canberra organised by the Australian Government, CSIRO, and ANDS to address what needs to be done to develop interoperating information networks,
  • a kickoff talk for another one day workshop on scientific metadata, and then
  • one of five invited keynote talks for the Australisian e-Research meeting (programme,twitter archive)

(the latter two on the Gold Coast in Queensland). Slides for all three are [here]](/talks/2010/11/eResearch-keynote/) page, this is by way of trying to summarise some of the things I learned.

I guess the first and most obvious thing hit me at Heathrow before I left: the Australian dollar has got huge in the last five years - roughly $1.50 a pound (and parity with the US dollar)! Apparently it’s now the fifth most traded currency in the world since it’s seen as a proxy for the Chinese yuan (basically such a lot of Chinese money is spent on stuff Australia digs out of the ground). As a consequence, everything in Australia seemed expensive (and even expensive at the old “right” exchange rate of about $2.20 a pound). But this isn’t a travel blog, so let’s get to the reason why I went.

Early on I tweeted a frantic bleat … “About to go into 1st day of 6 days of “informatics” mtgs. Can already feel climate science lack (what was that about “you made your bed”)?” So why did I put myself through it? Not just because a bunch of people who I like and respect had invited me (though that helped), but because I knew Australia has a lot to tell us about interoperability - facilitated by a range of technologies. Australians have always been very active in the “standards” community, and my theory on this (which I picked up from someone else, but I can’t remember who), is that they have a federal system with the “right number” of states: not too few, not too many (he types, desperately trying to avoid sounding like a nursery rhyme). That brings a necessity for interoperability and couples it with the ability to achieve it (not too many parties to achieve consensus on how to do it). So all good, and in Simon Cox and Rob Atkinson they have two of the leading luminaries on coupling standards based information systems and model driven architectures (and they’re about to get another one of their world experts back as Andrew Woolf goes home to Australia early next year, having been working here at STFC). And, in the last few years, they’ve taken great strides in building real information systems exploiting both their ideas and a raft of OGC web services.

Additionally, even more relevant for me right now, is that they are busy grappling with a bunch of “integrative” science problems that they just have to solve: the most important of which (IMHO) is how to get their water data together, so they can manage their (slim) water resources, and have a hope of adapting to the inevitable climate changes ahead. Probably perceived as more important by many in Australia is getting their geoscience (mining etc) reserach information aligned so that they can carry on digging stuff up and exporting it for the next few centuries. (I told everyone I could that they need to leave their coal in the ground, but I don’t expect too many were listening.) As a consequence, they have some real experience of doing data things that we’re only just trying to do. Oh for sure, we’re doing many things they’re not doing, but the converse is true too, they’re doing things we’re not. So, I mostly went to listen, and for the corridor conversations, and to set up some ongoing collaborations. I think on all three fronts I did well (much listening, chatting, and a couple of thing teed up).

So, what’s the bottom line?

Well, I think folks would get a lot out of looking through the first few presentations of both workshops! The first is online already, the second will be soon. I’ll put a link here as soon as I hear about it. I particularly recommend anything by the aforementioned Cox and Atkinson, but also by Wyborne, Lemon and Box … there is some advice that the INSPIRE community would well do to head in the talks by Lemon and Box (which overlapped in material some, but each with slightly different perspectives). The bottom line is that Discover, Display, Download isn’t a paradigm that hits the sweet spot for a large community of users (even if it does for a goodly proportion of science use cases) - given INSPIRE isn’t primarily to support science, they’d do well to heed this message. That said, I think the sort of thinking, and activity, that INSPIRE is working through is a necessary step along the road to more sophisticated interoperability - somewhat like crawling, necessary for most (but not all) children before walking. (I can almost picture Sean Gillies choking on his beer, railing against me supporting OGC services, but all I can say is that not all roads get to Rome the same way, and I think for some organisations, a jump straight to RESTful services based on more sophisticated information models, just isn’t going to happen.)

I think I also convinced myself of the strengths and weaknesses of “pure” RDF/linkeddata approaches to information management. I spent a lot of time in my second talk addressing what needs to happen to exploit both an RDF and XML view of the world, and on managing our view(s) of that world. To that end, the Atkinson talks on the importance of managing our information models themselves as firstclass artefacts in our information systems, strike me as pretty important. The trouble is that if you want to consume a sophisticated information artifact describing something about the world in a piece of software, and you want to do more than navigate around it (a la linkeddata), then you have to know a priori what the structure is. But of course the structure is changing … managing all that requires a form of model driven architecture.

The other big thing I came away with was a deeper appreciation of just what ANDS are achieving. I’ve been pretty anti similar initiatives in the UK, and so my feelings with respect to ANDS were coloured by thinking about the UK. However, while I still think I’m right in the UK context, I was wrong with respect to Australia. When you start with a blank data management slate you have some advantages, and I think their approach of investing (seeding) activities is a pretty good one. Of course I might not agree with all the details of what they are doing, but the big picture seems pretty good. A $50M national data fabric, with big storage nodes, lnked together, and a plan to perhaps think about some discipline specialisation in the future … That coupled with investments in a range of information management activities … all seems pretty sensible. Before I left I thought the UK was leading the world in digital data curation activities through JISC and NERC, but now I’m not so sure. (Dear American readers, you are doing a lot of good stuff, but your activities, although individually excellent, are exceedingly fragmented by your agency structures and the competitiveness of your activities. While competition is important to stimulate evolution and progress, one can invest in buying too many lottery tickets …) The UK has a new e-infrastructure plan, and it’s possible with some joined up thinking, and some investment, we could get back on the leading edge …

… but investment right now seems unlikely… how many more folk like Andrew Woolf and Richard Sinnott will we see emmigrating from the UK to Australia, where their salaries will be vastly greater than in the UK, and more importantly, there is money to get the job done?!

Hence, finally, the last thing I took home, was how exposed the UK science community is. George Osborne might think that by ring fencing the science budget he has kept UK science afloat. On the evidence of my trip to Australia, the good ship UK science may be afloat, but she’s badly holed, and there are bigger and better ships elsewhere now, and it’s not obvious that the best of the UK crew will stay put. (No this is not a veiled hint that I’m heading overseas, it seems likely that I’ll go down with the ship.)

comments (1)

Stephen Pascoe (on Monday 15 November, 2010)

I’ve just browsed through David Lemon’s slides online. Great food for thought, although I interpret a lot of the slides as a rephrasing of the statement “data interoperability is hard”. There is no surprise in the observation that 96% of the effort goes into getting data into a form ready to use: understanding the question is always most of the effort in finding an answer.

One thing that really rang true is that too many portal systems make it easy for publishers rather than users. I see this in data standards too – NetCDF-CF seems to be driven almost entirely by data producers rather than users.

Although he asserts there is no single data model that will meet all our needs I tend to feel that who ever find the model that gets closest, and produces quality tools and services on top of it, will be the one that cleans up.