I’ve been asked to highlight the benefits of running the Orbital project so far. We’re seven months or so into Orbital, which is an 18 month project. In our initial Project Plan, we identified the anticipated impact of the project and so I’ll use that list in this blog post to reflect on the impact and benefits so far. The headings and text in italics are copied from the Project Plan.

Research practices

Researcher’s data management practices will change, supported by technologies that encourage new processes in the administration and dissemination of data.

We’ve had very little impact in this area so far. It’s too early to impact on researchers’ practices when we’re still developing our own knowledge and the infrastructure to support RDM. Changing researchers’ practices takes time. However, there are indications that it will happen. Engagement with our user groups and ad hoc requests for help from researchers who know we’re working on the project has shown us that researchers do want to change their practices. Our recent DAF survey also told us that researchers know that their practices could be improved and where they need support to do so.

Internal auditing

Greater oversight and analysis of research data created by researchers will be possible.

We’ve had no impact here and won’t until the Orbital software is built. We will be working on this in the next version of Orbital and our recent effort at the MRD Hack Day around activity data was a precursor to this work. We are increasingly seeing activity data as a key component of Orbital and this was underlined early on in the project when Mansur Darlington from the ERIM and REDm-MED projects stressed the importance of capturing contextual metadata.

Research governance

Improved methods of auditing research undertaken by the university will be possible, enabling greater cross-disciplinary work.

This relates to the benefit above around capturing activity data and improving ‘business intelligence’. As yet no real impact, but we still anticipate Orbital being a useful tool for reporting and enabling greater cross-disciplinary collaboration though greater transparency. Related to this is the creation of RDM Policy, which we have begun and has resulted in a statement being made for the EPSRC RDM ‘Road Map’.

Integrated services

Research data management will be integrated into existing systems, such as staff profiles, the institutional repository, blogs and calendars. Towards a Virtual Research Environment.

We have had a direct impact on the creation of new staff profiles at the university. Nick Jackson, Lead Developer on Orbital has been working with Alex Bilbie in the ICT Online Services Team to create an aggregated profile for staff. We blogged about it earlier and you can see my example. Profiles of staff are now aggregated from different systems and stored as RDF Linked Data and we intend to pull in activity data from Orbital to further enrich staff profiles. In this way, our work is being recognised and valued by other teams in the university. Furthermore, the university has recently procured a new ‘Awards Management System’, which will provide data to Orbital about funded research projects and we intend to couple Orbital with EPrints using SWORD2.

What is clear from our discussions with users is that they expect Orbital to do more than simply store and publish research data. Without using the term, they are effectively asking for a Virtual Research Environment (VRE). This is something which we did anticipate and have always planned for Orbital to be a tool for both analysing and publish research data. When discussing ‘Research Data Management’, there is a fine line between DMP planning, research project management, team workspaces and public web publishing and while we need to be careful that the scope of Orbital does not creep, we are sensitive to on-going user requirements.

FOI compliance

Will make FOI requests easier to respond to or unnecessary.

We’ve had no impact here so far, nor are we yet in a position to.

Open Data

Will promote and enable the production of public data sets.

As I will discuss in a forthcoming blog post about our first release of Orbital, we have had some impact here and have witnessed the benefits. In summary, a researcher contacted us for help with publishing some data, the result of which was an invitation to write a journal article about the data, offers of collaboration and the strengthening of an EU grant application.

Our workshop on open licensing has also led to a further meeting between myself (Joss Winn, Orbital PM), and the university’s IP Manager. A further follow up meeting is planned to draft guidance for staff on the use of open licenses for source code and data. Furthermore, research staff are being directed to the Orbital team for informal advice on open licensing. In this sense, we are beginning to improve the awareness and understanding of open licenses among researchers.

The innovation cycle

Will embed new technologies and culture change among professional staff at the university and lead to further innovation in our services.

We are having some impact here and have had meetings with central ICT staff about integrating our server farm with cloud services. We are currently developing the Orbital software using Rackspace, but have recently ordered hardware, partly paid for by the project, to establish a private cloud, running on OpenStack, for research and development at the university. In addition to this, our development toolchain has changed and we now have tools and processes in place that we did not have six months ago. These are being adopted outside of the Orbital project by staff within the ICT Online Services Team and other projects we are running. In addition to this, we intend that the changes we make to our own R&D tools and processes, are made available to other researchers and students. Over the summer, we will set up and maintain a university-wide Gitorious source code repository service (similar to Github), where staff and students who write code can form teams, manage their source code, and publish it if they wish. We also intend to run a Jenkins server for similar purposes so that all staff and students can benefit from source code control and the quality assurance processes that we have implemented through Orbital. Orbital is now a driver for a general R&D infrastructure for Academic Computing that project members and wider members of LNCD  are building.

I will write more about this at a later date because, for someone who manages R&D infrastructure projects at the university and wishes to engage staff and students in our work, I am excited to be able to integrate this into academic programmes and the work of other researchers.

I want to also stress that like all of our projects, the benefits, however slight, spill into other aspects of our work. Being a large project, Orbital has allowed us to concentrate on developing our toolchain and development environment across other projects, it’s given us time to learn new skills and share our learning with colleagues. In this way, it has been pivotal in the way we work and the future direction of our work.

Recruitment

Will build capacity for local development of innovative services

Orbital has allowed us to recruit two full-time Developers (Nick Jackson and Harry Newton). We are therefore two staff up and it is my intention to try and keep it that way.

Staff skills

Will improve staff skills and experience

Yes, we are benefitting in this way. The Orbital project team are now the RDM ‘experts’ in the university and despite being novices in this regard, over the course of the project staff working in the Library, ICT, Research and Enterprise Office and Centre for Educational Research and Development, are each developing their understanding of the processes and implications of RDM.

Clearly an 18 month project (at least the way I run them!), allows for staff to learn new tools and skills, experiment with new methods of working and disseminate this learning to other staff. This is one constant that I value highly about our project work. Despite the stop and start nature of project work and that not all of our work eventually makes it into a fully fledged university services, the tools and learning, especially as we engage more with academic programmes, goes beyond the confines of the project and is most satisfying.

I have written more about my interest in how hackers learn and the university as a hackerspace.

Culture change

Will change the research culture of the university by improving the tools available for managing and sharing data.

From the point-of-view of RDM, this is closely related to the first anticipated impact/benefit. We cannot claim to have any real evidence of benefits or impact at this stage on how we manage research data. However, as I’ve noted several times above, our use of the cloud, our advocacy of open licensing, our implementation of new R&D tools and processes, are also part of ‘culture change’ at the university. Furthermore, due to the DAF survey, the Orbital project is now widely known by researchers beyond our initial user group in the School of Engineering, and through our reporting to the university Research, Innovation and Enterprise Committee, staff at all levels are made aware of our work. Gradually, the idea of ‘research data management’ is being understood.

Technology choices

Will influence future choices in technologies (both locally developed and outsourced).

Yes! See above.

HE sector R&D

Contributes to innovative R&D in the HE sector

Yes, I think we are beginning to do this and the benefits so far are around shared learning among developers across different projects. We were instrumental in early discussions about the DevCSI MRD Hack Day and three of us contributed to the two day event. We blog regularly on this site (around 50 posts so far) and share our work with anyone who is interested (see the links in the sidebar).

Public Sector data management

As yet, the Orbital project can only claim to have resulted in one research dataset being published (again, more on this soon as I want to explain it in more detail). However, Orbital has grown out of our work over the last couple of years around managing and re-using institutional data, resulting in data.lincoln.ac.uk. We are also active members of the data.ac.uk initiative and I chaired the data.ac.uk panel at Dev8D this year.

Efficient re/use of resources

Demonstrably re-uses and builds on previous work, both funded and non-funded projects.

Yes, this was an early benefit of the project. We are building on our previous work and what we have learned from it in past projects. Our use of MongoDB, our work on staff profiles, our use of OAuth, and our API-driven approach to development, all build on past projects, funded and un-funded.