One thing and another meant I was unable to blog final thoughts and summaries about the CRIG unconference that I attended last week, so this is rather long, being a combination of the post I would have written Friday afternoon and a couple of consequent thoughts.

Firstly, on unconferencing, or at least the way it was implemented for CRIG; I like it a lot. Since we were partly a talking shop and partly a workshop to refine interoperability scenarios and challenges, the main session worked essentially like a lightweight breakout session system – topics were assigned to whiteboards, and people chose topics, migrated, discussed and withdrew as they wished. It was leagues more interesting and more productive than being assigned a breakout group with a topic. Successive rounds of dotmocracy helped to sort out the zeitgeist from the soapboxes. I could see this format working extremely well for e.g. the Cambridge BarCamp, or the e-Science All Hands meeting.

This was the first face to face meeting of the CRIG members as CRIG members, and really helped to frame the agenda for CRIG. I realized that there are some big issues underlying repositories that only become really important when discussing interoperability. For example, I can see OAI-ORE creating the same kind of fun and games around pass-by-ref, pass-by-val that the community currently enjoys when discussing identifiers, and just like identifiers, it touches just about every scenario.

One message came out pretty strongly; the emphasis on repositories isn’t useful in itself. One of the topics for discussion that passed dotmocracy (i.e. was voted as something people wanted to talk about) was “Are repositories an evolutionary dead end?”, a theme picked up by David Flanders. Well, I personally don’t think so, but then I’ve probably got a more malleable definition of “the R word” (as Andy Powell puts it) than most. If I’ve read the mood correctly, people are beginning to regard centralized, data storing, single-software, build-it-and-they-will-come IRs as a solution looking for a problem. Some regard repositories as a complete diversion, others that we should act on our improved understanding of the problems in academic content management and dissemination by acknowledging failed experiments and moving on quickly. Nobody gave me the impression that they thought the current approaches would work given a couple more years, more effort or more funding.

This has all been said before; when the conference was over, I reminded myself of Cliff Lynch’s 2003 definition of the Institutional Repositories, which describes institutional repositories in terms of services, collaboration, distributed operation, commitment. If you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in a while, go back and take a look, it’s in the 5th para.

Whilst it’s only a view of how things should be, I think it’s a good view, and it neatly sums up what’s important about repository interoperability – it’s about the interaction between systems needed to achieve a repository.

Discussions this morning: –

What are we GETting? How to answer questions like “where’s the license for this resource”, “where’s the thumbnail of this large image”. There was talk of content negotiation services (e.g. The alternative (which I strongly favour) is to use descriptive links (e.g. link rel).

Problems and opportunities in utility computing (using EC2 / S3 etc etc). The problems are most often extremely prosaic – persuading the institution to provide a credit card with an unknown spend. Probably the best idea that came out was to use utility computing for a personal repository – your institution covers the costs and adds their branding while you work with them, and you can take your personal repo between repositories easily.

Multiple submission (e.g. to IR + subject repo + RAE tracker etc). As users, we’d like a single submission system for all these systems, e.g. put a presentation in ‘the system’ and have it propagated to slideshare + IR. As an observation, there are huge issues in pass by val (c.f. packaging) / pass by ref (c.f. ORE) that are not going to be resolved soon (probably at all).

P.S. can you guess the theme of the post titles?

[In previous episodes] : I’m at a JISC Common Repositories Interfaces working Group unconference event. This is novel to most of the participants, so we’re learning about the format as well as discussing the issues. The first day consisted of introductions and some brainstorming type exercises designing to bring out issues to take forward into the unconference.

Last night’s networking event was essentially a continuation of the discussion during the day. The change of location was useful, though; a lot of the early conversation was of the form “I’m amazed we didn’t talk about …”. The great thing about the unconference format is that we can fix those problems easily, rather than going home from the conference thinking that it was all very interesting, but didn’t really tackle burning issues.

One of the random thoughts that came up last night: communication between people involves semantic loss. To put it another way, you have a set of meanings you associate with the word “communication”, and so do I. They’re unlikely to be the same, but here we are, you reading (probably wondering why at the moment) and me writing. This isn’t a problem, because we naturally know that this is happening, and have ways of avoiding (rather than preventing) problems – like redundancy (e.g. “To put it another way…”). Perhaps the starting point for any interoperability should be about “good enough” and redundancy should be encouraged?

The first session of the unconference turned out to be a kind of brainstorm to extract pertinent issues from the mindmaps generated through the preparatory chats.

The next step is a round of ‘dotmocracy’, which is a way of getting a bit of consensus on which of these issues people are interested in.

The last chat I was part of brought up the question of why we should bother with digital preservation. The argument against it usually goes that if people find resources useful they will preserve them anyway. I personally think that a kind of public interest theory is applicable due to the fact that current value of a resource is often lower than the future value of a resource – intervention is needed to protect the future value of the resource.

On reflection, though, it’s not the issue we should be discussing at an interoperability meeting. What we should be thinking about is “If someone wanted to preserve the resources in a repository, what interfaces / services would they need to be provided with?”

(I’m blogging this now because I don’t expect preservation to make the cut after dotmocracy).

CRIG Live un-blogging

December 6, 2007

I’m at the JISC CRIG (Common Repositories Interfaces working Group) two-day Unconference today and tomorrow. We’re about to start the unconference proper.

This will all make sense very soon. Just follow me blindly for now.

David Flanders.

Well, here goes…