VREs and e-Social Science

Rob Allan

CCLRC e-Science Centre and JISC Common Framework Working Group.

What are the Grand Challenges in Social Science research? A What-if Scenario...

How do you want to access Grid-enabled resources? There are several options which could be discussed.

I will then attempt to explain current work supported by JISC, the Joint Information Systems Committee which supports higher and further education by providing services and development programmes. Whilst this is closely related to e-Science, in that many similar techniques are being tested and used, the three strands or "pillars" are given different names. In this talk we will use the names e-Research, e-Learning and the Information Environment.

I will finally explain how the pillars are being bridged by a combination of a common service component framework and a recognition that Web services technologies and portals are appropriate in an open and distributed architecture linking suppliers to consumers. We refer to it as The Open Technology Framework for Education and Research.

Further information is provided at URLs:

All JISC Programmes: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=programmesbrowse
JISC e-Research Programme - http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=programme_eresearch
JISC e-Learning Programme - http://www.elearning.ac.uk
JISC IE Programme - http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=ie_home

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What If?

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The Information Environment

In the Information Environment, service providers in multiple institutions wish to make their resources available on-line for both learning and research processes. Resources are of many types. They include databases of survey results or other research material such as experimental and simulation data. Other resources may contain textual and pictorial data related to social or historical events or arts including literature. Music and speech are also special cases. Tools for annotation, markup, publication, cataloguing, provenance tracing, format conversion and cross searching are all important.

A key aspect of Grid-based research is access to data. Data suppliers need to make their services available in ways which permit transparent access. Authentication and authorisation are important (currently Athens password system is used). Search facilities are also important and we need to be able to search across multiple catalogues and combine data from several sources. There may however be issues of confidentiality and ethics which cannot be avoided.

The JIE (JISC Committee for the Information Environment) has very well established activities and has developed the following architecture.

IE Architecture

For further information see http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=ie_home
RDN, Resource Discovery Network: http://www.rdn.ac.uk. See also Subject Portals Project: http://www.portal.ac.uk/spp
MIMAS, Manchester Information and Associated Serices: http://www.mimas.ac.uk
JORUM, JISC Online Repository for Learning and Teaching Materials: http://www.jorum.ac.uk
EDINA: http://www.edina.ac.uk
AHDS, Arts and Humanities Data Service: http://www.ahds.ac.uk
UK Data Archive: ESDS the Economic and Social Data Service http://www.data-archive.ac.uk
UKOLN: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk.

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e-Learning is characterised by providing electronic access to learning materials and well-defined activities within a single institution. This involves large numbers of learners either working as peers or in hierarchies with teachers and tutors. Assessment and grading is also included in a Managed Learning Environment as part of the admin process. This is not required in a personal learning environment where it is assumed that the learners are self-motivated.

The JLT (JISC Committee for Learning and Teaching) has had a strong portfolio of projects developing tools and standards for many years. JISC also has services such as CETIS (Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards), which provides input on standards and strategy at an international level. The e-Learning Programme has four main areas of focus, reflected in four strands: e-Learning and Pedagogy; Frameworks and Tools (ELF); Distributed e-Learning; and Innovations.

A recent high-profile discussion focussed on the definition of the E-Learning Framework, ELF. ELF is not an architecture in itself. Rather, it captures a common way of factoring functionality across different components and provides their scope and definition. This is a vision related to that of a Service Oriented Archiecture. It is implied that Web services are to be used to connect the components and that agreed specifications will enable the inter-operating of open source and commercial tools. Another aim is to provide specifications enabling exsting services to be exposed with useful functionality and granularity. ELF will form part of the Open Technology Framework.

E-Learning Framework

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e-Research Services Framework

e-Research is characterised by small communities of collaborating researchers in multiple institutions wanting to carry out complex processes to create new knowledge. This is also often linked to personal learning activities and electronic publication. e-Researchers are using the Grid.

There are a number of areas of overlap between the different pillars, the following diagram shows examples including some e-Research subject domains. These are of course for illustration only and not specific.

Overlapping Areas

This next figure shows the components, or services, identified as being required for a Virtual Research Environment. Similar service classification has been done for the other pillars and all will be included in the Open Technology Framework.

VRE services framework

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The JISC VRE Programme

The purpose of a VRE is to help researchers in all disciplines manage the increasingly complex range of tasks involved in carrying out research. A VRE will provide a framework of resources to support the underlying processes of research on both small and large scales, particularly for those disciplines which are not well catered for by the current infrastructure.

VREs will add value to the research process across all disciplines by complementing and inter-working with existing resources and by being flexible and adaptable to changing requirements. The approach being taken is based on an architecture which is extensible and supports, but does not restrict, the resources needed by individual research teams.

The concept of a VRE is evolving, and the intention of this programme is not to produce a complete VRE, but rather to define and help to develop the common framework and its associated standards and to encourage others to work within this framework to develop and populate VREs with applications, services and resources appropriate to their needs.

The aims of the VRE Programme are to engage the research community in:

  1. building and deploying Virtual Research Environments (VREs) based on currently available tools and frameworks;
  2. assessing their benefits and shortcomings in supporting the research process;
  3. improving and extending them to meet the future needs of UK research;
  4. developing or integrating new tools and frameworks where appropriate solutions do not yet exist.

The programme seeks to involve all sectors of the research community and recognises the need to support research activities within and across disciplinary boundaries.

For further information see http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=programme_vre

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Example of e-Research Projects

The projects funded by JSR are intended to be demonstrators of what the technology can achieve and how it might influence research practice. For this reason a very broad range of subject areas was chosen. It is however hoped that the projects will work together to achieve sustainability. They migh also act as examples to stimulate work in related areas. The projects are simply listed here with some comments on their domain areas and goals. We highlight some projects which are being presented at this workshop.

Strand (i) - larger scale projects to deploy VRE demonstrators based on existing frameworks, such as Sakai or OGCE.

Strand (ii) - projects to identify functionality (in the form of tools and services developed in other projects) which has not hitherto been integrated into the existing framework architectures and to add such functionality to address clear user requirements.

Strand (iii) - projects to develop and deploy lightweight, proof-of-concept VRE demonstrators appropriate to the needs and skills of specific communities.


There will also be a formative evaluation project to assess, as the programme proceeds, how effectively the selected projects are meeting the aims of the programme; to gather and disseminate best practice; to identify gaps; to raise awareness of the programme and stimulate discussion on VREs in the community; and to form an advisory group representative of all sectors of the research community to make recommendations for further work.

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Hand Knitted Software 2005

Access to Resources.

Most of the VRE projects are working on different user interfaces and are assessing the impact of a VRE on various user communities and for a variety of tasks to support cross-domain research.

A big problem still is how to access the resources we require.

In Social Sciance for instance there are datasets from, e.g.

There are also computational resources such as the National Grid Service which are already available (see next talk). This includes HPC facilities at CSAR and HPCx.

There are additionally instruments, e.g. for in-the-field collection of observational data.

Some of these are supported as JISC Services.

Presentation created by R.J. Allan
Hand Knitted Software 2005