Leaping Hurdles: Planning IT Provision for Researchers

I recently attended a workshop sponsored by the Joint information Systems Committee (JISC) that presented some of the findings from the JISC funded community engagement and virtual research environments (VRE) projects. The three community engagement projects presented were the engage project (engaging researchers with e-infrastructure), the e-uptake project (enabling uptake of e-Infrastructure Services), and the eius project (e-Infrastructure Use Cases and Service Usage Models).

And the Virtual Research Environments (VREs) presented were MyExperiment (sharing scientific workflows), the VERA project (Virtual Environments for Research in Archaeology) and the BVREH Project (Building a Virtual Research Environment for the Humanities).

Rob Proctor presented the findings from the e-uptake project, one of the community engagement projects concerned with understanding the barriers to researchers applying new e-infrastructures within their work practices. One of the aims of the project was to identify recurring and wide spread barriers rather than localised and contingent barriers. The people interviewed for the study were primarily researchers but alos intermediaries who provide support services.

The project examined research tools and their use within various stages of the research life-cycle and situated the barriers within the lifecycle. Questions were asked about how the researcher assesses whether to use the tool in the first place such as cost, investment in time, and relevance. Technical complexity was also assessed as a ‘barrier’. The interviews were transcribed and coded for analysis, presented in XML format; with innovation studies providing the theoretical base. The database of finding is online for further analysis.  http://engage.ac.uk/

Neil Chue Hong, the Directory of OMII-UK gave a presentation about the Engage project that sought to promote a dialogue between software developers, researchers, and infrastructure providers. In his talk he emphasised the difference between ‘people infrastructure’ and ‘computing infrastructure’. He noted that between computer and humans that the barriers may be insurmountable for one person, but easy for another person.

In this project they particularly wanted to identify the easier barriers and they commissioned projects as tests. They discovered a number of barriers to computational infrastructures; particularly the gaps in the funding strategies. Neil also emphasised that there was a lack of common language and shared vocabulary to discuss the obstacle and how they could be overcome. The project outcomes are also available online: http://engage.ac.uk/engage

Danius Michaelides from the MyExperiment Virtual Research Environment (VRE) from Southampton discussed some of the collaborative processes enabled by the MyExperiment system. This Web 2 application allows scientists to swap and share scientific work-flows. It has 1800 registered users, but as is often the case with Web 2 applications; very few people are actually contributors. The system rewards those people who do contribute through credits and attributions; also allowing other to comment if the workflow was helpful or not. One of the strengths of this project is that it is embedded well within the way in which researchers undertake their jobs (partly because it uses an AGILE development method). Plus it offers an API so that it can be further exported to other systems such as Taverna Workbench and Google Gadgets. The other VREs that we show were the VERA project and the CREW project (further details available on their respective web sites).

The final project show was another community engagement project called eius. In this project they were tying to identify ‘successful’ uses of e-infrastructures so that the finding could influence others. The people interviews were mostly early adaptors so that it could be understood how they influence others and so that their opinions could be disseminated through people who have a standing in the field. In this project, they were trying to leverage community knowledge about ‘meta-practices’ across disciplines to inform successful design, rather than impose a system from a ‘top-down’ centralised position. Again, the project findings and other outputs are available online: http://www.eius.ac.uk/

The day finished with a number of break-out sessions to discuss the various barriers such as the need for iterative design practices. A participant gave an example of a heart machine that was not built through an iterative design process so didn’t work in the field when it rained! I wonder if e-Infrastructures work in the dark.


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