Researcher Requirements Report published

We are pleased to announced that the VIDaaS’s Project’s Researcher Requirements Report is now available from our website.

The Report is the product of a requirements gathering process lasting several months, which involved interviewing researchers from a range of disciplines, and conducting a national survey. Our chief aim was to gauge interest in the Database as a Service (which – fortunately for the project – turned out to be considerable), and to establish exactly what people would like to see offered by such a service.

However, the Report also provides an interesting snapshot of academic researchers and the IT staff who support them, and of the projects they work on. For example, it became clear that collaboration is very important to many researchers – and that a substantial proportion don’t currently have access to tools that permit them to share research data with colleagues as easily as they would like.

We asked about attitudes to making research data publicly available – a real hot topic at the moment, as research councils are increasingly requiring this as a condition of funding. While researchers seem to have mixed feelings about data publication (under half were happy with the idea of making their data generally available at the end of their project), many liked the idea of having a straightforward way of putting a particular subset of data on the Web to accompany publications such as journal articles – particularly if the dataset had a persistent URL or DOI that would allow it to be cited.

Evidence from elsewhere suggests researchers have good reason to be interested in this possibility: a presentation by Kevin Ashley at the recent DCC Roadshow in Oxford reported a study indicating that papers for which accompanying data was available were cited more than twice as often as those with no data available.

We also made some interesting discoveries about favoured software and data formats. Spreadsheets and statistical analysis packages were both common – the latter particularly among social scientists. Relational databases were also widely used, though it was noticeable that IT support staff were more than twice as likely to report relational database use as researchers were, perhaps indicating that academics find this method of managing data most useful when they have ample technical support available.

One slightly surprising finding was the prevalence of use of XML documents, particularly among humanities researchers: almost two thirds of this group make some use of them, and nearly a quarter said this was their chief method of handling structured data. On the other hand, document-oriented databases do not yet seem to have achieved the same level of popularity, with a quarter of survey respondents revealing that they weren’t even sure what these were.

All these desires and preferences (and many more that there isn’t space to talk about here – see the full report for details) were taken into account in compiling the prioritized technical requirements list described in an earlier blog post. This will guide the work done by our technical team over the next few months.

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VIDaaS Web Bookmarks

A VIDaaS Diigo Group has been set up to keep track of sites of interest to the project. The websites include related projects, conference events, reports, tools, Oxford services as well as relevant websites and resources.

A feed with the latest bookmarks has been added to the front page of the VIDaaS website. Those interested can subscribe to the feed, where regularly new bookmarks will be added.

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Literature review bibliography groups

A few weeks ago the VIDaas literature review was released. It surveys literature on issues related to academic use of databases and allied technologies, including cloud computing.

The following bibliography groups have been set up to share the papers and reports that form the basis of the literature review:

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VIDaaS User Requirements to Technical Priorities

The VIDaaS Project has now concluded its requirements-gathering interviews and conducted a national survey of researchers and IT staff engaged in supporting research. The time has therefore come to take our findings and translate them into technical requirements which our development team can get their teeth into. After going through all of the survey responses and interview notes, we managed to come up with a grand total of 81 separate requirements – enough to keep our programmers busy until well into 2013. Unfortunately, the project concludes on the 30th March 2012, so we’ve had to rationalise and prioritise the requirements to ensure that even if we cannot cover everything our users might want, we can at least get the really essential aspects of the Database as a Service software implemented.

Firstly, we took out any requirements which could be better dealt with via documentation and training rather than by the software itself, or which related more to the level of service we could offer than anything that could be measurably implemented by the technical team. Next, we merged a handful of requirements that specified different functionality but which could actually be provided via a single technical mechanism. Finally, we used the ‘MoSCoW’ system of prioritization to determine whether each requirement was a ‘must have’, ‘should have’, ‘could have’, or a ‘won’t have’ for the project. After comparing the user requirements (or in some cases aspirations), considering the functionality already in place, and ditching the ‘won’t haves’, we have managed to reduce the list to a more manageable 34 development tasks, 10 of which are regarded as truly essential to the success of the project.

Now it’s up to the DaaS development team to estimate how much team each piece of functionality will take to implement and test, and then we can reschedule the relevant work package in the Project Plan and get started on the new features, which we’ll be saying more about in due course.

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Literature review now available

The VIDaaS team recently reviewed the literature on database use by academic researchers. We looked at general works on database technology, shared services, and the cloud, and also included a number of case studies of specific database projects. The review offers an overview of both the opportunities offered by these technologies, and the challenges still remaining.

The literature review is available from the Project Outputs page of the VIDaaS website.

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VIDaaS Project Plan now available

If you are interested in finding out in a bit more detail what we are doing in the VIDaaS Project, now you can. We’ve published our Project Plan, which is available from the website at http://vidaas.oucs.ox.ac.uk/outputs.xml. We’ve actually already been working to this plan for a couple of months, but now it’s been formally approved by our Steering Group, so it’s safe to make it public. If you have any questions or suggestions about it, do drop us a line at vidaas@oucs.ox.ac.uk.

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Database service requirements survey launched

As part of the VIDaaS Project’s requirements gathering process, we’re conducting a survey into researchers’ current use of structured data, and the features they would like to see in an online database service such as the one we’re in the process of developing.

If you are an academic researcher working with structured data (that is, the sort of information that’s typically stored in tables, spreadsheets, or databases), or if you provide IT support for researchers engaged in this sort of work, we’d love to hear from you. There are two versions of the survey:

Researcher requirements survey

IT support staff requirements survey

The survey is open until the end of July. It shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes to fill in, and everyone who completes it will be entered into a draw for a £100 Amazon voucher.

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Events calendar launched

The VIDaaS website now features an events calendar, providing details of conferences, workshops, and training events which may be relevant to those who are following the VIDaaS Project, or those with an interest in research data management more generally. To receive ongoing updates, you can also subscribe to the calendar RSS feed.

Notable upcoming events include the JISC-led International Curation Education (ICE) Forum on June 29th, and the UK Data Archive’s Looking After Your Research Data workshop in September. November sees the 7th Research Data Management Forum, while the International Digital Curation Conference rounds off the year in December.

Also worth a look is the Digital Curation Centre’s series of Data Management Roadshows, happening around the country over the next few months – including an event in Oxford in September, to which members of the VIDaaS Project team will be contributing.

If you’re organizing an event of interest to the data management community, and would like us to list it, please contact us on vidaas@oucs.ox.ac.uk.

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The first VIDaaS JISC Review

The VIDaaS Project’s first review by our funders, the JISC, provided us with a good opportunity to take stock of what we’ve achieved so far and where we need to go from here. As we’ve almost completed our full Project Plan, we could refer our reviewers to sections of that to show we’d considered the issues we face and the potential obstacles. We’ll be making the Project Plan available shortly on the VIDaaS website.

Given that our work on the Database as a Service (DaaS) began during the Sudamih Project, our reviewers were particularly keen to know what the development situation was and whether there were any issues outstanding. We were happy to report that the only significant bit of core functionality left to implement was the advanced query builder, which will enable users to perform more ingenious searches of their data than merely filtering it. The other aspect that VIDaaS will now be turning its attention to is the user testing. This will be the driver behind much of the development work as we try to polish the system into something which doesn’t simply do what it says it does, but does it in such a way that researchers actually want to use it. Whilst we will be looking to extend the functionality of the DaaS over the coming year to better cater for researchers beyond the humanities, it is this usability issue which is crucial.

The VIDaaS team agreed after the review that the biggest risk to the project is if we fail to engage with the eventual users of the DaaS system and implement the improvements they suggest. If you are a researcher working (or about to work) on a data-supported research project and would like to get involved with the testing process, we’d be more than happy to hear from you! Drop us a line at
vidaas@oucs.ox.ac.uk
.

JISC were also keen to confirm that we had all staff members in place and see if they could offer support regarding any external dependencies. All staff members are now in place except for our Shared Services Developer, who will have the responsibility for ‘the design, development and implementation of the components that enable the integration of existing identity, access management, accounting and billing applications with cloud applications served from a virtualised infrastructure’ (the job advertisement will be posted shortly). Our ‘external dependencies’, meanwhile, are chiefly in the hands of our two major collaborators: Eduserv, who have the job of building a Higher Education cloud; and the Digital Curation Centre (DCC), with whom we shall be working to ensure that DaaS users can continue to be supported beyond the lifetime of the project itself.

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Welcome to VIDaaS!

We are delighted to be able to announce that JISC and HEFCE have agreed to fund the ‘Virtual Infrastructure with Database as a Service’ Project (or VIDaaS for short). VIDaaS will continue to develop the Database as a Service (DaaS) software that the University of Oxford began working on during the Sudamih Project, turning it from a pilot service to a full production service hosted on virtual infrastructure – firstly within the University itself, and then nationally via the higher education cloud.

The DaaS is an online service that enables researchers to quickly and intuitively build, edit, search, and share their databases. The DaaS will aid collaboration by enabling multiple editors to work on a single database; it will capture information about the databases it hosts, making them easier for others to discover; and it will offer researchers the ability to open up their data to others – whether their peers or the general public – at the press of a button. Because the DaaS can be provided as a central service, data can be securely backed up and considerable economies of scale can be offered over alternative database systems.

The University of Oxford will develop its virtual infrastructure so as to be able to support the DaaS and other such ‘Software as a Service’ initiatives in future. This entails enabling seamless capacity management, developing an identity and access management system that integrates the software with the infrastructure, and providing processes and solutions for billing and accounting for service use. Ultimately the infrastructure and shared services will be expandable into the general higher education cloud.

The project will be producing support materials and offering training courses for researchers wishing to get the most from the DaaS. Cost models will also be developed to indicate the expected return on investment resulting from the project. The Digital Curation Centre and Eduserv will be working with us to help ensure that the outputs are sustainable beyond March 2012.

VIDaaS is being funded as part of the JISC’s ‘UMF Shared Services and the Cloud’ Programme.

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