A JISC-funded Managing Research Data project

Posts tagged jiscMRD

On Wednesday, we hosted three people from the Open Knowledge Foundation, to discuss the Orbital project and their software, CKAN. It was a very engaging and productive day spent with Peter Murray-Rust (on the Advisory Board of OKFN), Mark Wainwright (community co-ordinator) and Ross Jones (core developer). We asked them at the start of the day to challenge us about our technical work on Orbital so far and I described the day to them as an opportunity to evaluate our work developing the Orbital software so far. We didn’t touch on the other aspects of the Orbital project such as policy development and training for researchers.

To cut to the chase, the Orbital project will be adopting CKAN as the primary platform for further development of the technical infrastrcuture for RDM at Lincoln. This is subject to approval by the Steering Group, but the reasons are compelling in many ways and I am confident that the Steering Group will accept this recommendation. More importantly, the Implementation Plan that was approved by the Steering group and submitted to JISC remains unchanged.

The raw notes from our meeting are available here. Remember these are raw notes written throughout the day, primarily for our own record. They probably mean more to us than they do to you! Thanks to Paul Stainthorp for his fanatical note taking :-)

Here’s the list of attendees and our agenda:


Peter Murray-Rust (OKFN)
Mark Wainwright (OKFN)
Ross Jones (OKFN)
Joss Winn (University of Lincoln, CERD)
Nick Jackson (University of Lincoln, CERD)
Harry Newton (University of Lincoln, CERD)
Jamie Mahoney (University of Lincoln, CERD)
Alex Bilbie (University of Lincoln, ICT services)
Paul Stainthorp (University of Lincoln, Library)


09.30 Introductions
10.00 Orbital introduction and context: Student as Producer, LNCD; Orbital bid and pilot project; Discussion of Orbital approach, the data we’re using, user needs etc.
10.30 CKAN introduction and context
11.00 Technical discussion – Orbital
12.00 LUNCH
12.30 Technical discussion – CKAN
13.30 Discussion – should Orbital adopt CKAN?
14.00 data[.lincoln].ac.uk
15.00 Next steps; Opportunities for collaboration/funding?

What is probably of most interest to people reading this are the pros & cons of the Orbital project adopting CKAN. I’ll provide more context further into the post, but here’s a summary copied from our notes:


I’m at a meeting at the University of the West of England, focussing on RDM for post-92 universities. I briefly presented the Orbital project, focussing specifically on how we approached the first release of the Orbital software and how software development, and the learning that takes place in that process, is one way to learn about and understand the RDM domain. I am in no way advocating a technologically determined approach – far from it, as this is very much a user driven development project, as is evidenced in the use case I outline.

This is a post about our first release of Orbital.

About a month ago, Dr. Tom Duckett, Reader in The Department of Computing and Informatics approached the Orbital project because he urgently wanted to publish around 20GB of data for Long-term mobile robot operations. That afternoon, we gave Tom and Feras Dayoub, his Research Assistant, space on one of our servers and they uploaded a bunch of HTML pages and the zipped up data. We minted a proxy URL for them and advised them on an appropriate data license to choose.   We also set up Google Analytics, so they could see what interest in his data there was.

Job done. For the time being.

What Tom really wanted was to be able to email a link to his data to a robotics mailing list and tell an international community of likeminded researchers and manufacturers that the data was available to use. He says that long-term datasets for mobile robots are quite rare in his community, so there was a good chance people would be interested in them. He also wanted to be able to demonstrate his work when writing an EU bid. There will be a follow up blog post about what impact this has had on Tom’s research.

That afternoon got us thinking: What is the minimal set of functions that a researcher like Tom requires of a Research Data Management tool?

Tom wanted access (sign in) to a server (hosting) where he could upload his data (storage) and describe it so that other people could understand and download it (publish) under an appropriate license. The URL pointing to the data should be persistent, even if the data itself is migrated from one system to another. The impact (analytics) of the data should also be measurable.

Tom’s chance intervention in our project made us focus on Orbital v0.1 as the ‘minimum viable product‘ for researchers who need to publish open data. We thought his requirements were a great opportunity to release something early and start getting direct user feedback on our product. We decided to set a release date for Orbital v0.1 a month ahead and aim to deliver everything that Tom asked of us in this first release.

A Minimum Viable Product has just those features that allow the product to be deployed, and no more.

Today, we released Orbital v0.1 and it does everything described above. It’s an alpha release, but we’ve been testing it like crazy, we also had Feras test it and we’ve been pushing code through Jenkins since the beginning of the project so we know it passes our QA checks and we think it’s stable enough for use. From this point forward, Orbital and the URIs it mints will persist, too.

From today, a researcher at the University of Lincoln can sign in to Orbital, create and describe a project, upload their data to the project, choose a license for the data and add a Google Analytics code to measure project analytics (we’re also tracking each button click to better understand how people use Orbital). The data is published at a id.lincoln.ac.uk URI, which will persist indefinitely. At this stage, until we’ve got an approved business case for scaling it up and out to all academics, we’ll be limiting uploads on a case-by-case basis. You can view and request what other features we develop for Orbital on UserVoice, or in more detail on our project tracker. We’ve also written a basic development roadmap.

For developers, here are the basic technical details. You might also want to trawl through our implementation plan and the collected blog posts at the bottom of the plan.

Orbital is written in PHP using the CodeIgniter development framework.  It’s split into two main pieces of functionality. Orbital Core (database and APIs) is currently hosted on a Linux box on Rackspace’s cloud. Orbital Manager (the User Interface) is likewise hosted on Rackspace. A user signs in to Orbital Manager via OAuth 2.0 using their university credentials. Orbital Manager is using Twitter’s Bootstrap framework. The project metadata is stored in a MySQL database. Files are uploaded to Rackspace’s cloud files storage using Andrew Valums’s AJAX Uploader. APIs are exposed using Phil Sturgeon’s CodeIgniter REST server.

Orbital is licensed under the GNU Affero GPL 3 license and you can download, fork it and create pull requests on Github:

Orbital Core

Orbital Manager

New contributors to Orbital will be ritually applauded each weekday morning :-) Thanks.

This week sees the formal two-day launch event for the JISC Managing Research Data programme 2011–2013 (the programme which is funding Orbital). It’s being held in the National College for School Leadership, next to the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus.

Unfortunately, after schlepping it from the furthest fringes of Lincolnshire (and then having to go back home for the evening), I was only able to attend a couple of hours of day 1. But it was worth it.

I arrived just in time for a workshop about a number of research data management tools developed/provided by the Digital Curation Centre (DCC). Dr Mansur Darlington, who’s acting as external assessor/consultant to the Orbital project, was also in this workshop and contributed greatly to the discussions. (My Orbital colleagues Joss Winn and Nick Jackson attended the [parallel] workshop on various JANET, Eduserv and UMF SaaS/cloud storage services.)