Category Archives: eResearch

mashup Augmented Reality Event, 2009

I went along to the Augmented Reality(AR) mashup event  yesterday evening to see what was happening outside the education sector for augmented reality.   JISC has been involved in a number of projects using smartphones and the Walking through Time project is looking at using AR to be able to show users what streets used to look like (see the project video of what the project is doing).  I can see that JISC are likely to do more with AR.  The uses in research, particularly, could be very exciting.  Imagine an archaeology dig, for example, where you could have layer and finds information overlaid on what you were seeing through the camera on your smartphone.

The first thing that struck me about the event was the popularity and range of people there.  When I arrived at 6pm, there was a queue at the reception desk of those who had turned up on the night and failed to get a place and the attendees included small private companies, large multinationals, government agencies and representatives of national interest groups.

The event had a multitude of themes running through it both in the room and on a lively Twitter backchannel (#mashupevent).  I’ve tried to pick out a few of those below that I think are particularly relevant:

–          What do we mean by AR?  This was an interesting question because some apps are fairly close to traditional multimedia apps.  It was also useful to be reminded that AR has been around for 15-20 years.  The reason for the current excitement is the potential of putting it into people’s hands through their phones and laptops; devices that they have easy access to rather than expensive specialist devices that are only used for AR.  The eventual definition that the meeting seemed to settle on was any application that added information to what the user was currently seeing and so augmented their reality.  I think it’s going to be important to settle on one meaning and work with that but not spend too much effort getting there;

–          AR has the potential to excite users because of its very visual nature.  This has both an upside and a downside.  What we’re seeing at the moment looks spectacular but how useful is it, which is a particular concern when we get to education?  I loved what companies such as Total Immersion were doing, using 2D images on paper to trigger generation of 3D images on screen; it grabs your eye immediately.  But there was a question of whether the dull but useful apps such as Connected’s education app that reads bar-codes and then triggers media launching on PlayStation Pockets (PSPs) would ultimately have more impact.  My feeling is that researchers would probably want functionality first.  Another interesting reflection was on not creating a PR soufflé – one company had Stephen Fry endorsing their product but still hasn’t had it approved by Apple, meaning their consumers are excited but don’t have anything to buy.  I think that is equally a useful lesson to take away for JISC; if we develop some cool AR apps then we need to make sure they can be available if they are taken beyond prototype;

–          AR is a medium but not an end in itself.  There was a feeling that what we are seeing at the moment are more gimmicks than solid apps because the apps focus on AR.  Indeed, one brand advisor is more concerned with telling companies NOT to develop an AR app for their brand!  It was agreed that there needs to be a focus on solving the problem by blending AR into the solution.  I think this has a lot of resonance in research applications and there is an argument to explore AR on a small scale at the moment and wait for it to mature before committing to larger projects;

–          For AR to be successful, it needs to have the hardware to be able to run it.  What was noted was that this did not necessarily mean having smartphones and one person even suggested that there may be AR phones.  My personal feeling is that for the hardware to be rolled out on a mass scale then devices need to be cheap, they need to be carried by a large retailer and they need an indispensable AR app.  A good example of how this is being done in another area is  INQ’s Facebook phone, which is now being carried by a major supermarket retailer in the US;

–          Data was a very interesting topic and unfortunately not one that had much discussion.  AR can give a lot to the user but I think Dan Rickman,  the Chair of the BCS Geospatial Group had a good point when he said that metadata would prove crucial.  I think having attention data geo-located could prove immensely important, bringing space into the equation and allowing us to personalise information and bring it to the researcher based on where they are; it would also make the time dimension more valuable.  There were some apps that showed how useful this could be without attention data including one that showed the nearest tube stations and directions over your cameraphone view (NearestTube by AcrossAir).  This also brings up privacy and how a user controls what data they share about where they are.  Again, a fairly short discussion on this at the meeting but a major issue to be addressed considering many institutions still face considerable challenges on how basic personal data is managed;

–          Standards was another area that was kind of touched on.  Somewhat worryingly, some of the panel felt that it was important to develop proprietary apps and then sort of get to the standards from there.   I think there needs to be a bit more work here as otherwise we’re going to end up with a mess of uninteroperable apps.  Sure, build the standards alongside practical experience but don’t wait until there is a wealth of practical experience and try to build from there;

An interesting comment from one of the panellists, to sum up, was ‘augmented reality is about looking through the window and not just looking at the window’.  I think when we can get to that state then AR will have truly taken off.  Until then, there is quite a bit more exploring to do to make it practically useful for researchers.

JISC OpenID Report

This morning I got the final copy of this report so I popped it straight up onto the JISC site, which means you can see it around lunchtime if you click here.

We feel this is an important report for the sector as it reviews a technology that we constantly get asked questions about and up to now we haven’t had authoritative answers for.  OpenID is, without a doubt, an important technology but up until now there hasn’t been a comprehensive review of how it could be used in the higher and further education sectors.  This has led to a lot of speculation and rhetoric with very strong advocates for the technology but, equally, very strong critics.  We’re hoping this report will inform the debate, particularly given the project has also developed a gateway between OpenID and the UK federation so those with OpenID credentials can access Shibbolised resources (subject to the resource provider being happy with providing access).

Overall, the conclusions were:
i) there is considerable interest in OpenID in the commercial market place, with players such as Google and Microsoft taking an active interest. However,
ii) all commercial players want to be OpenID providers, since this gives them some control over the users, but fewer want to be service providers since this increases their risks without any balancing rewards
iii) until we can get some level of assurance about the registration of users and their attributes with the OpenID providers, it won’t be possible to use OpenID for granting access to resources of any real value. In other words, without a trust infrastructure OpenID will remain only of limited use for public access type resources such as blogs, personal repositories, and wikis
iv) imposing such a trust infrastructure with barriers to the acquisition and use of OpenIDs may be seen to negate its open-access, user-centric advantages
v) OpenID has a number of security vulnerabilities that currently have not been addressed, but at least one of these is also present in the current UK federation.

The implications from this are:
i) Whilst OpenID does have its security vulnerabilities and weaknesses, some of these are also shared by Shibboleth as it is currently designed. Other technologies may subsequently solve these and therefore this could have implications for the UK federation.
ii) The UK federation as currently deployed has a significant shortcoming which is the readiness of IdPs to disclose the real-world identity of users to SPs (as distinct from providing opaque persistent identifiers to support simple customisation). This is not a technical shortcoming but an operational one. Whilst it is relatively easy to solve, until it is, it limits the applicability of Shibboleth to personalised and other services which need to know who the users are. OpenID does not suffer from this limitation and therefore there might be use for it in some scenarios where trust issues can be resolved.

And, finally, the recommendations are:
i) The UK academic community should keep track of both OpenID and CardSpace identity management systems as they evolve. There is clearly a great demand for a ubiquitous secure identity management system, but no consensus yet as to what this should be.
ii) Now that a publicly available OpenID gateway has been built, publicise its availability to the community and monitor its applications and usage. If usage becomes substantial, consider productising the service.
iii) Consider offering a more secure and more trustworthy gateway registration service for SPs that do not use, or use more than, the eduPersonPrincipalName attribute. This will allow them to use OpenIDs for authentication and a wider selection of eduPerson attributes for authorisation. (The current self-registration service is clearly open to abuse).

I’d welcome any comments on the report and/or gateway.  I think what we need to do is to keep the debate going and share experience to ensure that researchers and learners can get the most of OpenID.


I am currently sitting waiting for a sleeper back to London so it seemed a good time to reflect on this year’s All Hands Meeting that I attended in Edinburgh, the main annual e-Science conference in the UK.  There were several changes for this year.  The first was the venue so goodbye to the East Midlands Conference Centre and hello to a multi-location venue in Edinburgh.  I think the overall reaction was positive with a variety of places to meet up with colleagues both on and off site and a series of venues from the National e-Science Centre (NeSC) to the Appleton Tower and the very shiny and slick Informatics Forum.  Accommodation was a little far from the main venue locations but had wireless and a good breakfast (always essential to get me going in the morning!).  Dinner was also very well received at Dynamic Earth, with plenty to look around before the dinner and plenty of opportunities to mix with colleagues old and new.  I was rather less convinced about having coffee breaks that ran through the sessions but most people seemed to get used to it and there was a good deal of material to fit in so you could forgive the programme committees from running out of space to get it all in! So, down to the sessions, which proved notable this year for being very much focused on researchers carrying out good research enabled by e-Science.   It seemed that this year we saw a good deal more adoption of the tools that we’ve heard about in previous years and that was good to see.  Whilst tool development is still vital, it’s equally vital that the tools are used in a production environment.My first session was a BoF run by Alex Hardisty and Neil Chue Hong on e-Infrastructure.   I think the level of attendance rather took the organisers by surprise and a couple of thought-provoking presentations helped kick off our consideration of the subject material.  I’ll pop a link in here to the conclusions of the session when I get it but, in summary:

  •  e-Infrastructure is for everyone and is useful for a range of different challenges.  What determines its success is how it is used;
  • e-Infrastructure is increasingly being used by researchers as part of what they do on a day to day basis;
  • There are increasingly varied ways in which e-infrastructure can be used and this is likely to get more diverse into the future;
  • There is a mix of requirements from e-Infrastructure.  Some are quite happy to glue together components and use it in a very ad hoc way.  Others would like a more structured approach.  All in all, it’s quite a complex landscape so it’s important to work with the researchers as to what best suits what they are doing;
  • e-Infrastructure is already part of everyday research and that is likely to get to be more so as time goes on;

My first event followed after the BoF.  We’d invited an Australian delegation led by Dr Ann Borda to a drinks reception so that they could meet up with the eResearch team and members of the JISC Support of Research Committee (JSR).    There were some great conversations as all of the eResearch team got a chance to swap experiences of eResearch.  From my side, I got up to date with Australian developments in eResearch tools with Jane Hunter, Paul Davies and Ann Borda.  I also had a great conversation with Andrew Treloar, David Groenewegen and Paul Bonnington that ranged from approaches to data and the latest on ANDS to internet TV.  Finally, I got the chance to catch up over dinner with Andy Richards and Neil Geddes from the National Grid Service.  As always in these events, one of the main reasons for us to attend is to meet up with those who are out practising eResearch so I spent quite a lot of time on the stand on Tuesday.   It proved to be a great opportunity to catch up with some of my more recent projects so thanks to Tom Jackson from iREAD, Pete Burnap from SPIDER and Stephen Booth from Grid-SAFE for popping in and catching up.

I also had an interesting conversation with Andrew Cormack on PII (Personally Identifiable Information).  Andrew’s point was that most applications simply don’t need to ship PII and I would agree.  I think it’s often used as a comfort blanket but it’s a comfort blanket that carries its own risks.  If SPs (or RPs if you prefer that term) were to adhere to Kim Cameron’s second law (minimal disclosure for a constrained use)  from his Laws of Identity then the world would be a better place.   This brought us to an interesting case of what happens with grid computing.  It’s one of the few cases where you cannot get around issuing PII because you need to have a way of contacting the user in case their job fails or if it’s not going as intended.  However, it still adheres to Kim’s second law in that there is only the need to get a contact address for the user.

Finally, I talked with Richard Sinnott and David Medyckyj-Scott on geo data and access to more complex data sets. Richard has a long history of complex access to data sets, particularly around medical data and using roles to determine who can access what. I think we are reaching a stage where we can start moving towards a broader rollout of the technologies so that they become more ubiquitous and it is hopefully something we can build on top of Richard’s work and that of the data access projects we are currently running.  On the geo side, we are already running quite a few geo projects and I can see that location is going to prove to be increasingly important for research data and collaboration.  One of the initiatives that David is very much interested in is INSPIRE, a European directive to create a spatial data infrastructure in Europe.  I think INSPIRE is going to prove important over the next few years as it will help make spatial data easier to access and also provide an incentive to talk about spatial data in a common way.

POSTSCRIPT – This has been a long time in gestation as I’ve tried to get my notes down to a reasonable size for a blog post, which reflects just how much material there is at All Hands, making it a very worthwhile event to attend if you are involved in research and want to find new and better ways of doing research.

NGS Innovation Forum 2008

I was recently at the NGS (National Grid Service) Innovation Forum 2008 to find out what existing users of the NGS were doing and to see what the reaction was to future plans for NGS Phase 3.  The first, very encouraging, point was that there were more users there this year than there have been for previous years.  Secondly, these users were more diverse, with representation from researchers, e-science centres and support functions for researchers such as IS and research computing directors.

Day one started with presentations from researchers in biology and physics biomolecules with representatives from other research areas being amongst those at the event.  It has been particularly encouraging for JISC as a funder to see this transition of the NGS from providing resource predominantly for those in the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics and chemistry to greater provision for those in social sciences and the arts and humanities.  One message that remains, however, is that if the NGS is to get more users from a wider range of disciplines then they need to offer alternative methods of accessing the service to the command line and these need to be easy to use.  The benefits are very tangible, with one presentation reporting that modelling time had been taken down from one month to six  hours.

Michael Wilson then described how EGI (the European Grid Initiative) could involve the NGS amongst others and sparked off a very lively debate on who would take the NGI (National Grid Initiative) role for the UK that was required by EGI.  Whilst the UK and other countries have expressed an interest in EGI there is still no firm commitment and Michael’s talk stressed that EGI was only a co-ordinating body for European provision of grid infrastructure, not a funding body for national facilities, as has previously been the case with bodies such as EGEE.  This meant there needed to be national commitment to ensure that the UK was appropriately represented.

From the European perspective we moved to Daniel Katz’s presentation on TeraGrid, the American national grid.  There were a number of points that were particularly notable in the presentation, out of which the most interesting one was the concept of Campus Champions.  Campus Champions help promote TeraGrid and grid usage within their campus in exchange for attendance at TeraGrid meetings and a t-shirt!  More to the point, they are people who would like to encourage grid usage and work with those who are new to the grid to help them carry out their research more quickly or simply do new research.  It is something that we see happen on an ad hoc basis in the UK but gives food for thought on how we get phase 3 of the NGS to encourage new users.  Also of interest for me, with my access management hat on was TeraGrid’s experimental use of InCommon to access grid resources.

After lunch, the programme moved onto grid technologies.  There was a good section on Condor for managing campus grids.  Whilst there is often not much attention paid to grids within an institution they form a vital part of the infrastructure available to researchers.  Hugh Beedie also pointed out that they could be a very effective green alternative to high performance computing, especially given modern machines’ power efficiency.  Next up was a session on Clearspeed from Steven Young.  He described how there were four of these maths acceleration cards that now feature at the Oxford node of the NGS.  At this stage, there isn’t much use of them but they look promising for jobs that are maths intensive.

The day finished with presentations on the training available on the NGS (from David Ferguson) and Andy Richards talking about NGS Phase 3.  Both provoked lively debate from the audience and there was a great deal of interest in David’s offer to run training on a regional basis so if  you couldn’t attend the event and you read this then get in touch directly with the training team and find out about courses at

Day two was a chance to tie up with the campus grid SIG and to look at what the experience was for those who had joined the NGS.  The overall conclusions seemed to be that whilst it wasn’t easy to set up the software, the NGS had a very active support community that made the whole process a easier and that there were tangible benefits from going through that process.  This led into how to make the NGS sustainable, which follows the general trend with projects in JISC that are moving to be a service.  It was a topic that received a good deal of audience feedback and I am hoping that this can be followed up after the event as it is not going to be an easy task keeping access as easy as possible whilst making sure that institutions are appropriately recompensed for what they contribute.

The day finished with presentations on new directions for the NGS.  Keir Hawker went through what data services were on offer, with a range of options from Oracle through to MySQL.  Mike Jones then went through how the SARoNGS project was working to allow users who were members of the UK Access Management Federation to get access to NGS resources.

So, what were the key points to take away from the meeting?  I think they were:

  • Research is global and the grid offers a good way of working collaboratively within a trusted infrastructure.  It will be interesting to see how this ties into ongoing work on interfederation and virtual organisations in the identity and access management area;
  • The NGS has a great deal to offer the researcher and they are very keen to engage with active researchers to help them carry out novel research or to make what they do more efficient;
  • There are no doubt potential users of the NGS who could benefit enormously from using it so it is well worthwhile attending a training event or one of the e-Research Roadshows to find out more;
  • Whilst there are resources to try the NGS that are free at the point of use, this model will not scale infinitely so there need to be equitable models for sustainability;
  • There is a growing community of researchers from an increasingly wide range of disciplines but there still needs to be a focus on growing that further;
  • The institution needs to get involved in helping its researchers access grid facilities as more and more research is collaborative in nature.  This is not just providing access to the NGS but includes grid resources on campus so that researchers have a range of resources available to them;

All in all, it looks to be an exciting future for the NGS.  The next major decision point is whether approval is granted by JSR for the Phase 3 proposal.  My thanks to Andy Richards and the team at NGS for a great event and inviting me along and paying for my accommodation.

TERENA NRENs and Grids Meeting, September 2008


I recently attended the NRENs and Grids Meeting in Dublin, kindly hosted by Trinity College.  It gathered together a European audience of those involved in providing national education networks (hence the NRENs bit) and those involved in developing grid software and hardware.  The JISC interest in this event was that we are currently working on a number of projects and programmes with a grid related element (such as the e-Infrastructure programme and new work that we are currently formulating under the capital programme).

The programme for the event can be found here and the slides from the presentations at the event can be found in links next to the programme item.  I’ll not repeat what is on the slides in this blog entry; I’ll just point to the presentations of particular interest and comment on why I found that particular presentation interesting.

Day One – Grids

The first day focused on developments in grids.  The session on eduGAIN was particularly useful in covering how eduGAIN works; it’s quite a complex system but very effective so I’d recommend using the presentation as a 101 if you’re new to it.  Items of interest were that eduGAIN are going to be reviewing using Shib 2.0 and future developments also include non-web-based apps.  Both of these are areas that JISC is actively involved in so it would be worth following what is being done in eduGAIN.

The next presentation looked at easing access to grids via identity federations.  This was of special interest as we are currently involved in doing the same thing through the SARoNGS project.  This meant we had quite a lot to share with the group and after the coffee break Jens Jensen and I did a short presentation on what we were doing under SARoNGS, receiving some useful feedback and some good contacts to share software resources and use cases.  My feeling is that this is a useful area to link up with other European countries on as there are common problems that can be more quickly and effectively addressed through mutliple groups rather than one group on its own.  For example, we have an issue that the SARoNGS solution is constrained by UK Federation policy on passing a unique user name and sharing information between service providers, meaning it cannot be IGTF compliant and is a little less secure.  Norway has similar issues and we resolved to review what could be done in terms of a possible future change to policy that would allow a better technical solution and that would still meet the original goals of that particular aspect of the policy.  I also talked with Christoph Witzig of SWITCH and there is potential to work with them on aspects of MyProxy to make interoperability easier.

Authorisation developments in grids proved to be an interesting presntation by David Kelsey as it gave an insight into future work under EGEE.  The main messages were that there was a scaling back of funding for EGEE that has led to a great deal more focus on specific elements of the infrastructure that need to be tuned and that there was now an expectation from the EC of member states funding grid work.  The reduction in funding has meant that the technical work on middleware has been reduced and there has been a shift to focusing on the authorisation framework and an analysis of how authorisation could be more effective.  There is a broader desire to have a common policy for VOs, which would then mean that trust in them could be brokered in a similar way to the way it is in IGTF.

To wrap up the day, there was a discussion session on what we all felt would be important to address around grids.  The overwhelming part of the discussion focused on levels of assurance, something we have already looked at under the ES-LoA and FAME-PERMIS projects at JISC.   The overall agreement was that this is an area that needs to be addressed to allow new users onto the grid using a lower level of assurance, such as those with a federated ID as opposed to a digital certificate.  It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over the next year or so as members of the group grapple with this issue.  There was also some discussion on attracting more users and new users to grids.  It was generally agreed that we need to lower the bar slightly for those outside the traditional disciplines that use the grid (such as particle physicists and computational chemists).  Current initiatives in Europe would suggest that many have joined JISC in looking at how this could be done and have been succesful, SWITCH being one of the early ones with its IGTF compliant VASH and SLCS solution.

Day Two – Virtualisation

Virtualisation is something we have looked at previously under the NGS but the time was not quite right.  Day Two showed plenty of evidence that maybe it is time to go back to this area under the new round of capital funding to see what we can do.

Cloud Computing for On Demand Resource Provisioning looked at one potential method of providing virtualised resources in a grid environment.  The concept was to have  a virtualised layer to separate the virtual machine from the physical location.  Ignacio Martin Lorente explained how the University of Madrid was trialling using OpenNEbula to be able to do this and hence bring into use machines that had previously not been on the grid as well as allowing for burst traffic by using resources such as Amazon EC2.   I won’t try to explain how the whole thing works; it’s much better explained in Ignacio’s slides.  Setting up VOs on these virtualised resources can take as little as 20 seconds for a standard setup, meaning that environments can be set up and maintained easily without having to rely on being on a physical server.  Ignacio finished his presentation with a look at the RESERVOIR project under the EU Framework Programme , which is a 3 year 17m euro project to get a Next Generation Infrastructure for Service Delivery.  I think both of these projects have  interest for JISC and it was useful to have examples of how virtualisation could work within an institution and a broader initiative to get cloud computing working across Europe.

The presentation on the Challenges of Deploying Virtualisation in a Production Grid covered pretty much what it said on the tin.  Stephen Childs went through how Grid-Ireland had worked on having virtualised environments in their grid environment through open-source software called Xen.  He also covered the results of a survey he carried out to look at virtualisation.  The key points to come out were:

  • It is important to treat a virtualised environment in a production grid in exactly the same way that you would any other production environment.  Some of the virtual machines are going to be up for a long time so need patches, etc in the same way as any other physical server;
  • Virtualisation is gradually gaining ground and now there is a choice of VM software from commercial to open source, it is starting to become an activity that is being engaged in across European academic institutions.  However;
  • This activity is currently on a trial basis as people get used to what is involved in provisioning VMs as opposed to physical servers;
  • There has to be an awareness of where I/O is critical as Xen is especially weak on this at the moment, meaning a virtualised server may not be the best solution;
  • There need to be solid use cases for implementing virtualisation and it must be used appropriately.  The two main reasons for not using virtualisation in the survey were management issues and  performance;
  • A VM host does not behave in the same way as a physical host in all cases – there may be issues with compatibility even if the setup is exactly the same;
  • Monitoring is still quite flaky;

Finally, Stephen outlined how Grid-Ireland has used Xen to install, effectively, ‘grid in a box’, where institutions simply needed to host the box they were given and management was carried out by Grid-Ireland.  This was a neat solution for the institution but involved quite a lot of overhead for Grid-Ireland on management.

I thought this was a good presentation and Stephen is a useful person to talk with further about virtualisation (as further discussions over coffee proved).  He is going to look at putting the survey into a PDF format so that the results can be shared with others.

The remaining presentations covered physical infrastructure so, whilst interesting, were not quite as relevant to what we are doing in Innovation Group.

The final discussion covered future topics and certainly one that we raised was accessing data on the grid, which we are doing quite a lot of work on under the e-Infrastructure programme .

All in all, I think this is a useful group to keep in touch with as the topics they are addressing are ones that we are either currently working on or are interested in for the future.  The event provided a good opportunity to meet with others working in the same areas and share experience as well as get pointers to resources that we could use at JISC.

My thanks go to our hosts at Trinity College in Dublin, who worked very hard to make sure the event ran smoothly, with particular thanks to John Walsh for booking an excellent venue for dinner and being on hand to offer local knowledge (he even guided us back to the hotel from the restaurant!).


There’s quite a lot of buzz around Ubiquity at the moment, which is probably most simply described as an attempt by Mozilla to take the mashup out of the domain of the web developer and into the hands of the user.  The product allows a user to create their own mashups without having to be fluent in web scripting and coding; all they need to do is install the appropriate client on their browser (currently Firefox only) and then type in what they want to do.

The applications demonstrated in the demo are fairly simple at this stage but it’s easy to see how they could have quite a lot of use in education to help take the drudge out of some common tasks and to open up what we’re doing about combining services.  So, as an ex social scientist I seemed to spend quite a lot of time combining stats together and then displaying them on a map; it would be great if a I had a ‘widget’ that would do that for me and take some of the spadework out.  That then frees me up to do a bit more of the interesting research that I really want to do.

Add a little more and it’s a tool that could become extremely useful.  It’s all built on an open source license so there is potential for Grease Monkey type extensions that allow further extensions.  We are slowly and painfully seeing the freeing up of data under Open Access and a revival in the citizen scientist as a result (see here) .   Then we have tools and standards such as OAuth and OpenSocial that are allowing us to selectively release data about us and permissions to help these services do something for us.

Ultimately, I think it’s worth watching what Ubiquity is doing over at Mozilla Labs because it could start opening up some mainstream avenues for really useful mashup tools that save the researcher and educationalist a lot of time and let them get on with what they’d like to do.

Yahoo Fire Eagle Launched

Given the amount of buzz over ‘the next big thing’ in Web 2.0 (or are we now moving to Web 3.0?), which appears to be geo-location, it was inevitable that soon one of the bigger established players would launch a platform.  Hence Yahoo’s Fire Eagle didn’t come as much of a surprise when it launched.  As with all apps that take personal identifiable information, it lets you control how you manage your data and what you share.  In this case you can update the service with where you are and that can then go to other services such as BrightKite that actually use the information.  BrightKite’s probably a good example as it allows users to interact based on where they are and what they are doing and it also pushes location data back to Fire Eagle.  Sites like Dopplr are also on board so you can share information about where you will be that can propogate across sites rather than being trapped in one site.

All this is great for the average busy researcher.  I can see where my colleagues are (providing they’re subscribing; big ‘if’) and arrange to meet up or they can contact me.  The mobile phone service is especially interesting as it simply pushes where I am to my services and there is no need for me to do anything.  Suddenly my social network becomes a hell of a lot more interesting and I’m meeting new colleagues who have similar interests and are in the same location.

The downsides are the usual ones for personally identifiable information (PII).  I’m now not just giving up information on what I am interested in but where I am and if that’s being pushed out to a variety of services they have that information too.  OK, they can promise that they will delete that information when I ask them to and Yahoo are very good at giving the option of switching the service off when the user asks for it but that information is still out there in the public domain.   As we’ve seen recently with the Google/YouTube and Viacom legal case, once a user gives out their attention data into the public domain, it can have unexpected consequences.  In that case, attention data had the potential to become PII just by the sheer volume of it and the open-ness to data mining to create a unique profile.  Imagine what could happen with geo-location data that has far more potential to uniquely identify an individual.

All in all, though, I think that geo-location services have a great deal of potential in  higher and further education.  JISC now have quite an extensive geo portfolio and some of those services, such as Digimap, are already helping researchers whereas some others that are embryonic such as GeoXWalk are very close to providing a service.   Match up, say, GeoXWalk with a geo-tagging app such as FireEagle and location aware instruments and you can then start creating intelligent meta-tags for where data is created as well as when and with what. That could create some pretty exciting new research with derived data, license agreements permitting ;-).

LHC Computing Grid

Computing reported today that, after much work, the Grid behind the Large Hadron Collider(LHC) is due to start work in earnest tomorrow.  I think this is pretty significant because whilst we have been warning of the data deluge for a while now and looking at ways to address it, the LHC and the grid being used to provide compute and data storage resources give good examples of exactly what  we are talking about.  It’s estimated that the LHC will produce around 40,000 GB of data every day or around 12 to 14 petabytes in the average year.  What isn’t mentioned in the Computing article (understandably) are the other demands being placed on grid resources by instruments similar to the LHC, which require equallly formidable grid resources.  All of that data ultimately has to make its way around the academic grids to the researchers who use it and collaborate with others to make new discoveries and carry out increasingly innovative research; some idea of the challenge faced can be seen in this article on the UK portion of GridPP at RAL.  That’s a lot of traffic and a lot of storage, as whilst facilities such as CERN have quite stunning data storage facilities (around 5m GB of disk and 16m GB of tape storage), the data can’t stay there forever given the rate at which it is produced.

JISC has been working hard in all areas to help provide appropriate resources to  facilitate this data both getting from the instruments to the scientists involved and allowing them to then have the tools to share it.  JANET  provides the core physical network for academic institutions, having completed SuperJANET5.  On top of that we have been working with the National Grid Service (NGS) to ensure there are appropriate grid facilities for researchers in the UK.  Through programmes such as e-Infrastructure and VREs we have been working to make the tools needed for researchers to collaborate and share experimental results.  Finally, the repositories and information environment work has been reviewing how the data produced can be curated and archived so researchers can find it and re-use it.  Future work is going to be on continuing to develop these tools but also looking at new ideas and new software to help researchers take data from the LHC and other instruments and sources and carry out their research more efficiently.

APSR Identifying Researchers Workshop

This is one of the workshops that has been on my to do list to review online but that has taken me a while to get to it.  That’s a shame because there is a lot of useful material in here on identity in general and specifically on reputation management on the web.   Before I get started on describing the workshop, my thanks go to Patty McMillan, who presented at the workshop and mailed me through the link for the presentations and papers.

The workshop was, in its own words, about the issue of managing researcher and author identities:

[This issue] is a significant one that has an impact on a range of situations including, but not limited to, scholarly communications. This is an issue not only for researchers who nowadays interact with multiple identity and security systems but also for scholarly communications where the need to accurately identify authors and describe their scholarly resources is increasing in importance. The purpose of the workshop therefore is to bring together people from these diverse fields, with a view to seeking common ground and coordinating developments in author identity management in Australia. Some of the day will be spent analysing and sharing the experience of people delivering services in the current scholarly communications environment. A discussion of some of the burgeoning solutions for author identity management will also take place.

What was particularly interesting was the diversity of opinions and ways of approaching this. There are very clear ties to identity management on a number of levels:

  • Access to systems – how does the researcher securely identify themselves to be able to collaborate with external groups and access systems in the university;
  • Reputation management – how does the researcher ensure that they are accurately represented and attributed in a range of systems they may not necessarily control;
  • Applied identity – how does identity affect other areas such as scholarly comms;

All of these tie in with what JISC is already working on so it’s of significant interest.  The AMTP Programme to get institutions to join the UK federation is already affecting how users including researchers get access to journals and will soon, with SARoNGS and projects such as GFIVO affect how they interact with other researchers.  They already have some element of managing their identity within systems within projects such as myExperiment and this is likely to increase as virtual research environments (VREs) and eScience simply become part of the toolset researchers use.

Lawrie Phipps and I did a session at the NGE Event this year on reputation management that was raising similar issues about how reliable reporting of a researcher’s output online was becoming increasingly important to how they were perceived.  With the rise of Open Access publishing and new research evaluation frameworks being developed worldwide then I would think that’s only going to be come more important.

Finally, our future work on identity and access management is going to look at consolidating what we have but ensuring that we then apply this within specific areas such as e-learning, e-research, repositories, etc.  It’s only by doing this that we are going to find out whether the pilots and studies we have carried out so far work on a much larger scale.

So, the presentations and papers are definitely worth a look and can be found here.

InCommon Identity Assurance Programme

InCommon are now joining others, including JISC, in looking at identity assurance with their new Identity Assurance Programme. In short, identity assurance is usually defined as how confident you are that the user is who they say they are but it can become a very hotly debated topic as it can apply to other areas as well. The JISC interest has been long running with the technology being demonstrated in the FAME-PERMIS project and the policy side of which resources should have which level of protection being applied in the ES-LoA project. Currently InCommon are looking at just NIST Levels 1 and 2, which cover the lower levels of assurance and stop short of mandating full biometrics and key cards. This is interesting, as is their terminology of Bronze and Silver to help the user understand more about what they are being expected to give for a certain resource and the resource provider to understand what they are asking for.

Currently the programme documents are up for review at their web site so it’s worth having a look if you’re interested in this area. I can see that it is one that will become increasingly important as both IdPs and SPs get their head around the federation as it stands and then want to go a step further for their more valuable resources.