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eResearch Australasia 2008

Tobias Blanke, Ann Borda, Gaby Bright and Bridget Soulsby report on the annual eResearch Australasia Conference, held in Melbourne, Australia, 29 September - 3 October, 2008.

The following overview of eResearch Australasia 2008 by Ann Borda is intended to give a sense of the diversity of the programme and key themes of the Conference at a glance. A selection of workshops and themes are explored in more detail by fellow contributing authors in the sections below: Bridget Soulsby on the 'Data Deluge', Gaby Bright on 'Uptake of eResearch' and Tobias Blanke on 'Arts & Humanities eResearch'.

The full eResearch Australasia 08 programme and copies of the speaker presentations are now accessible on the Conference Web site [1].

In brief, this marks the second year as an annual event for eResearch Australasia. The Conference was held in the city of Melbourne and provided another very rich programme of featured speakers, demonstrations and workshops from across the Australian and international eResearch community. About 400 participants came together during the course of the event.

In particular, the event offered delegates a number of opportunities, namely in its role as:

These opportunities were equally matched by the national importance of the eResearch agenda in general as reflected in its visible support by the Australian Government through the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) [2] and the Australian eResearch Infrastructure Council (AeRIC) [3].

The recent growth of investment in eResearch activities in Australia has historically drawn inspiration (and its drivers) among developments in the US, UK and Europe. The international keynote presentations did not disappoint in this regard. They consistently provided a range of perspectives that had certain resonances among the audiences – and eResearch practitioners.

Speaker highlights included:

There were also lively and complementary sessions, such as The AeRIC eResearch Forum, a town meeting style session which looked beyond existing initiatives for fresh ideas in innovation; and a provocative Cloud Infrastructure Services panel featuring Tony Hey, Corporate Vice President of External Research, Microsoft Research [4]. This year the Conference had a notably strong data thread which underpinned many of the presentations. For instance, keynote speaker, John Wilbanks spoke of his work with neurocommons.org [5], which seeks to make scientific work as accessible and useful as possible by employing the latest semantic Web technologies to bring together multiple databases and link their contents to a fine-grained level of detail across taxonomies. In the words of Wilbanks, 'eResearch is a requirement imposed on us by the flood of data.'

Similarly, Graham Cameron of the European Bioinformatics Institute [6] discussed the emergence of eScience as a unifying theme bridging disciplines, sharing solutions, and legitimising the field of Bioinformatics which has evolved in its role in tackling complex information needs.

The Australian National Data Service (ANDS) [7] Workshop brought together a number of the recurring data issues for discussion. Arising from the Workshop sessions, there was a consensus that data management plans (DMPs) were especially important and that it would be useful to develop template DMPs, along with assisting selected research projects in formulating a DMP of their own [8]. These plans then would be made available online for other projects to use and adapt.

A second thread running through the Conference focused on eResearch enablers. For instance, two Australian state funded initiatives are showing the ways in which eResearch can facilitate better research, collaboration and resource sharing across research groups and institutions. VeRSI (the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative) [9], funded by the Victorian government, and Intersect [10], funded in part by New South Wales, are developing exemplars in this space and leading the way for other inter-institutional and collaborative partnerships. The need to leverage more existing infrastructure and resources became a central discussion point for participants in a workshop attended by members from Australian and New Zealand research organisations. Exploratory activities involving eResearch collaboration across the 'Tasman' are already underway – and future support needs for education, outreach and training were among the potential partnership areas identified for follow-up discussion.

Enabling tools and associated demonstrators were represented in a few of the talks. Ron Chernich (University of Queensland) spoke about 'A Generic Schema-Driven Metadata Editor for the eResearch Community'. The Schema-based metadata editor (MDE) is a lightweight (Web 2.0) client which builds on ten years of previous editor experience and is available as a downloadable release [11]. Specfic collaboration tools provided as part of the ARCS [12] service and desktop modelling tools for structural geology were among the offerings. The opportunities provided to scientists through remote access to national facilities and instruments were successfully demonstrated through the Virtual Beamline Project [13] which supports protein crystallographers working at the Australian Synchrotron.

Building infrastructure and research capability comprised several of the strands, ranging from federated identity infrastructures to gridded data delivery supporting the IMOS (Integrated Marine Observing System) Satellite Remote Sensing Facility. High-performance computing (HPC) and the potential benefits to researchers at Monash University highlighted the institutional context. In particular, the HPC landscape is in a state of growth in Australia with the recent launch of a A$100m Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative. Featured speaker, Prof. Justin Zobel, presented on the initiative which promises to be one of the largest supercomputing facilities in the world dedicated to supporting life sciences research [14].

Although there remains a considerable focus on 'science' disciplines and applications, the Conference had a dedicated strand related to eResearch developments in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This was a marked and refreshing difference to last year's event. Prof. Michael Fulford from Reading University (UK) led the list of plenary speakers with a discourse on a virtual research environment (VRE) for archaeologists. Fulford's presentation struck a chord across the subject domains and key themes represented at the Conference. Also from the UK, speakers based at the National Centre for eSocial Science (NCeSS) [15] and at the Arts & Humanities eScience Support Centre (AHESSC) [16] provided valuable insights into engaging with those respective communities, as well as providing examples of nationally co-ordinated activities, methods of approach, and tools. The profiling of Australian contributions to Humanities eResearch culminated in a full day workshop held at the end of the week-long event. This was complemented by the recognition of the PARADISEC (Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures) project which received the inaugural VeRSI eResearch HASS (Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) award [17].

'The Data Deluge'

'I am a digital girl, and I live in a digital world' is what went through my mind moving from session to session at this year's eResearch Australasia Conference held in Melbourne, Australia. With multiple mentions of 'Moore's Law' and data being a theme of the event, the amount of information I needed to absorb and then follow up was a little overwhelming; I really did start to feel another aftershock from the 'data deluge'.

From Excavation to Publication: The integration of developing digital technologies with a long-running archaeological project

Professor Michael Fulford, University of Reading

Michael Fulford delivered the opening keynote for the conference. Describing the logistics and characteristics of a long-term archaeological dig [18], Michael painted a picture for the delegates of what it is like for researchers on an extended dig, including the costs, tools, people and the working environment. He pointed out that the difficulties for conducting research in the typical archaeological dig environment produces a level of complexity that a standard desktop or laboratory researcher would not necessarily face. As a 'desktop' researcher I take for granted that when I sit down at my desk to work I will be able to plug my notebook into a power point, a network cable for connectivity (or wireless) and have light to enable me to see my environment. While on an archaeological dig, Michael and his team of researchers, have to build their working environment to include all the technological luxuries that I have grown to take for granted - and this is before they even get any of the 'digging' done. Wireless antennae, power generators and 'toughened' notebooks have now become standard items in today's archaeologist's toolbox. Professor Fulford not only described how technology is being used in providing an environment, he discussed how it is now also embedded in the way they conduct their research.

Field notes form an integral part of an archaeologist's research, historically collected by scribbling on any flat surface, including trouser legs or the inside of an arm and in writing only able to be deciphered by the scribe or by a pharmacist well practised in deciphering a medical doctor's hieroglyphics. Sponsored by JISC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Virtual Environment for Research in Archaeology (VERA) [19] is a project, in collaboration with the School of Systems Engineering at Reading and the York Archaeological Trust, that captures data in the field via the use of digital pens. The field notes data, following a pre-described format, are uploaded into an integrated archaeological database (IADB) that also has interoperability with other archaeological databases. This information is then, in turn, developed into 3D models of the archaeological dig and disseminated. Professor Fulford discussed how the use of technology was increasingly being used in the field on these digs and was providing a more effective means for translating meticulous field notes into valuable information. The presentation was a valuable demonstration on how technology is providing researchers with tools to reveal our past.

What Is a Society to Do?

Increasing pressure for data, to be combined with other data, to be cited by other data for the good of the data… or the researcher?

New Science Communities for Cyberinfrastructure: The Example of Geochemistry

Kerstin Lehnert

The second plenary talk on day two of the conference was delivered by Dr Kerstin Lehnert, Director of the Geoinformatics for Geochemistry Program at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) of Columbia University. Dr Lehnert highlighted the benefits of gaining a scientific society's support for successful open data sharing. Kerstin also pointed out the current issues with acceptance of this practice within a scientific community including the ramifications of open data sharing and citations.

The idea of openly sharing data amongst researchers in a scientific discipline has raised concerns around the intellectual property and acknowledgement of the data source. Kerstin discussed how it has taken 10 years to gain support from the relevant professional societies and scientific journals for developing a 'best practice' of depositing geosciences data into a database for open access. It is a valuable message, to gain acceptance for open data sharing, the professional societies and scientific journals associated with the discipline are a powerful influence within the community. Gaining their support is progress, addressing the issues as regards citing a researcher's contribution to a database is still a hurdle to overcome. A copy of Kerstin's presentation can be found at the conference Web site [20].

More Data...

Throughout the conference there were many sessions and talks specifically on data, its management, curation and importance. Memorable sessions included:

Daniel Cox

Daniel Cox from the Australian Research Collaboration Service (ARCS) talked about the establishment of the ARCS National Grid and hosting the various tools for eResearch. The speaker gave an overview of the service systems including Storage Resource Broker (SRB), the collaborative tool sakai and how the future of the service will include the national deployment of gLITE, middleware which is being used by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in CERN. Daniel's slides can be found at the Conference Web site [21].

Andrew Treloar

The Australian National Data Service (ANDS) is supported by the Australian Commonwealth Government, Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR). Andrew Treloar from the ANDS Organizing Network presented an update of where the A$24m four-year project 'Towards the Australian Data Commons' now stands after a year and where it is heading. Andrew provided an overview of the increasing digital data management issues and presented a roadmap of how ANDS plans to address the growing needs for 'use and reuse' of research data in Australia. Part of the plan is to provide 'four inter-related and coordinated service delivery programs' in developing frameworks for influencing policy, providing utilities for offering technical services, seeding the commons to start an improvement in data management and building capabilities by targeting early career researchers and research support staff. The talk was well delivered with a large amount of content covered. The ANDS Project looks to address a number of the 'data deluge' issues and provides a hopeful outlook for researchers drowning in data. Andrew's presentation can be found at the conference Web site [22].

Engaging with eResearch

Birds of a Feather: Raising Awareness and Increasing the Uptake of eResearch

Convenors: Gaby Bright and Dr Lyle Winton

Birds of a Feather sessions are a welcome addition to the eResearch conference landscape in Australia, and have been adopted from similar conferences in the UK. Gaby Bright, the eResearch Communications Manager from VeRSI, ran this BoF with Lyle Winton, a Senior Research Support Officer from eScholarship Research Centre [23], University of Melbourne. The aim of the BoF was to explore the various perceptions and benefits of eResearch for different 'domains', and discuss how best to communicate to these domains. The convenors defined domains as the various research discipline areas, in addition to the various administrative divisions of Higher Education institutes, which support researchers. With this broad range of interested parties a panel was formed to provide their perspectives on the issues to be discussed. The panel had representatives from science and humanities research, as well as IT divisions, research offices and eResearch centres.

photo (95KB) : Photo of the BoF panel with convenor Lyle Winton (far left)

Photo of the BoF panel with convenor Lyle Winton (far left)

The panel and a very engaged audience were posed five questions, and a lively discussion ensued. One of the major challenges identified for the successful communication of eResearch is what does eResearch actually mean. Whilst the panel members and the audience had many perspectives to offer, the following 30-minute discussion did not elicit a definition. There was not even a clear idea about whether eResearch is a verb or a noun. Perhaps the only point of common agreement was that it is an area that, in Australia, is still evolving. The discussion highlighted just how important it is to know the intended audience for any eResearch awareness message.

The convenors sensibly noted that demonstrating the particular benefits of eResearch to an audience is crucial if one is to convince them to adopt a new technology or research practice. To this end they asked delegates what they saw as the key benefits of eResearch to themselves, or to the people they supported. For some it was about having the right tools for the objective that they were trying to achieve; for others it was having the reliable infrastructure in place. Most people generally agreed that for eResearch to be successful it needed champions, often the early adopters.

There had been five questions posed, but given the enthusiasm of the discussion, the one and-a-half hours allocated only allowed for coverage of three, the last of which was what it took to make eResearch a priority. Encouragingly, one of the IT directors present stated that his drivers were the researchers, rather than the institutional hierarchy. Undoubtedly support 'from above' is needed, but it was pleasing to hear that the details will be determined by the users' needs. Notes were taken, and displayed, during the discussion [24] and the whole session was recorded, as well as blogged. The convenors have said that they intend to process the information with a view to publicising the conclusions drawn from the discussion. Participants were encouraged to leave their contact details so that they can hear about the results and benefit from being a part of a discussion in which all present expressed an interest.

Birds of a Feather: Research Skills and Training

Convenors: Gaby Bright, VeRSI, and Valerie Maxville, iVEC [25]

The question of who in Australia is responsible for the implementation of eResearch skill development and training was raised during the AeRIC eResearch Forum on the second day. It seems that this is a problem that has no Federal or co-ordinated solution. Stream 3 of talks on the final day of eResearch Australasia had a soft focus on eResearch education and support and seemed an ideal prelude to an informal lunchtime discussion.

The discussion brought together many of the people who participated in the Awareness and Outreach BoF discussion from earlier in the week. It focused on identification of what eResearch skills are needed, who needs them, and how best to deliver them. It was acknowledged, and agreed upon, that there is a new breed of role – neither purely academic, nor purely service delivery, nor support-based. The challenge for research institutions, or eResearch support organisations, is how best to provide the training required as well as the career incentives and options.

The qualities that are needed in good eResearch support staff were readily identified. Some will be technology developers, some will fulfil business analyst roles, but all will need to occupy the layer between the two traditionally disparate communities.

The impromptu but impassioned gathering gained enough momentum to establish a mailing list and collaboration space [26] to further the discussion. The group hopes to be able to share knowledge about existing training options and provide a network from which a more formalised approach can be developed.

Arts and Humanities eResearch

Arts and Humanities eResearch has never limited itself to more traditional ideas of e-Research and e-Science, which link these mostly to the application of certain advanced network technologies in supporting research. These technologies like the Grid have their place, but they might generate the impression that the solution is already there and only needs to find the right application and those willing to provide the money. From our experience, eResearch will fail if it deems itself as just an application of technologies. It would then be perceived, rightly, as some kind of invasion of technology know-it-alls, who know the solution without understanding the problem. It became obvious during eResearch Australasia that in Australia the eResearch community is not limiting itself to a particular set of tools and methodologies. This became particularly clear in the sessions that covered non-traditional eResearch disciplines such as social sciences and arts and humanities.

Arts and Humanities research was strongly represented at eResearch Australasia 2008, not only on the main conference track, but also in a specialised workshop on the last day of the Conference. The workshop continued and extended the discussions of the Conference, which on the first day saw a Bird of a Feather session on performance arts in eResearch [27]. Other arts and humanities presentations on the first day also introduced the new Aus-e-Lit Project, which aims to support literary scholars in Australia through a number of services being developed and deployed in the AustLit portal [28]. The portal will integrate several repositories relevant to literacy research and will offer advanced visualisation, annotation and collaboration services to researchers. In another presentation, Margaret Birtley, the inaugural CEO of the Collections Council of Australia, outlined the scale of the challenge for arts and humanities eResearch, as the number and size of cultural heritage collections steadily increases with digitisation programmes in Australia.

Arts, Humanities and Cultural Heritage Workshop

Convenors: John Byron, Executive Director, Australian Academy of the Humanities; Mark Hedges, Centre for eResearch, King's College London; and Tobias Blanke, Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre, London

The specialised workshop on 'eResearch in the Arts, Humanities and Cultural Heritage' on the last day of the Conference was attended by more than 50 people, and during which researchers from Australia, the UK and Europe offered an overview of their research projects.

We cannot describe all the presentations here, as there were over 15 in the course of an intense day of discussion and analysis [29]. It was particularly interesting to see that the challenges to arts and humanities eResearch are comparable all over the world. Dianna Hardy from James Cook University, e.g., introduced how best to support video annotation in cultural heritage communities. The Gugu Badhun people, an Aboriginal community in North Queensland, uses a toolkit developed at James Cook to record their community life. The toolkit reuses existing technologies (SRB and Plone integrated with Shibboleth) to set up a collaborative and data management solution for video and other files and a custom application for video upload and annotation called Mattotea [30]. Video annotation has also been a focus in the UK and European arts and humanities eResearch projects [31]. So has the integration of heterogeneous data resources. The Heurist Project at the University of Sydney focuses on data management strategies for heterogeneous Humanities data [32]. Heurist is an extremely flexible reference manager, which handles Internet bookmarks, bibliographic references and user annotation in a seamless, browser-based social bookmarking space. Additional types can be added without programming. It was also interesting to see how more traditional digital humanities projects start to use eResearch tools. The online publication framework South Seas [33] is a resource exploring James Cook's first Pacific voyage. The resource is currently extended to become a RESTful Web publishing platform that operates in conjunction with a collection of lightweight Web services and visualisation tools using the Plone content management system.

But the workshop delivered not only interesting systems but also presentations about methodologies important to arts and humanities research. The OAK Law Project ('Open Access to Knowledge') is an Australian research project at the Queensland University of Technology to look at open access publishing [34]. It was presented by Kylie Pappalardo. The project has recently released the results of its 2007 nationwide survey of the attitudes and practices of Australian academic authors towards the publication and dissemination of their research, publishing agreements and open access.

Alongside these presentations from Australia, a remote presentation by Antonio Calanducci from Catania, Italy, addressed how the existing European eResearch infrastructures can be used for cultural heritage preservation. The Catania digital archives include the works of Italian writer Federico De Roberto, made up of almost 8000 scans, and the musical archives of Giuseppe Geremia, an 8th Century musician. A working prototype of these two digital libraries has been implemented on the gLibrary platform [35], a grid-based system to host and manage digital libraries developed by INFN Catania, on the Sicilian data research infrastructure. In the final presentation of the day, Tobias Blanke summarised the grass-roots projects of the UK arts & humanities eScience initiative [36].

The workshop ended with a plenary chaired by John Byron on how to take an Australian arts and humanities eResearch agenda forward. It was emphasised that such an agenda needs to be user-focused and concentrate on the specific needs of Australian arts and humanities researchers. The arts and humanities e-Science programme in the UK is in many ways unique in the world, but the workshop again showed that its challenges like the data deluge can be found anywhere and that these challenges produce fascinating research.


eResearch Australasia 2008 proved to be another success for the participants – not least because it provided the means for both researchers and eResearch practitioners to go beyond 'what' has been accomplished to date, and to allow discussion on the 'how' and the 'why'. The presence of regional, national and international participants permitted a number of perspectives and experiences to be shared. The introduction of more strands relating to non-traditional communities in eResearch, such as the arts, humanities and social sciences, gave a richer set of examples of how eResearch is crossing boundaries.

However, there are inevitable challenges which were highlighted during the course of discussions. Researchers are not yet working well enough across disciplines, since it remains a challenge to obtain insights into other research disciplines. Some would argue that making data more easily discoverable is one way to achieve multi-disciplinary outcomes.

But the data deluge remains a complex issue, especially when researchers do not understand the potential benefits of managing data - for instance, from creation in the lab to 'publication'. There still needs to be more exemplar projects to demonstrate the benefits of data management to obtain greater buy-in. Similarly, eResearch should support exemplar development more visibly and promote best practice in its approach.

In terms of clear benefit for researchers in Australia is the way in which eResearch has introduced collaboration technologies that can eliminate geographical barriers and can facilitate conversation across the country and internationally. There is a sense that technology is beginning to draw Australian researchers closer to the rest of the world and making many things possible that previously were just not an option.

Everyone attending this year's eResearch Australasia 2008 would surely agree on this latter point. Indeed, there was a lot of evidence to show that Australia is proactively boosting its research communities and joining the global effort along the way to make research an increasingly global activity.


  1. eResearch Australasia 2008 http://www.eresearch.edu.au/
  2. Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) http://www.innovation.gov.au/
  3. Australian eResearch Infrastructure Council (AeRIC) http://www.pfc.org.au/bin/view/Main/AeRIC
  4. Microsoft Research http://research.microsoft.com/erp/
  5. Neurocommons http://www.neurocommons.org/
  6. European Bioinformatics Institute http://www.ebi.ac.uk/
  7. ANDS – Australian National Data Service http://ands.org.au/about-ands.html
  8. Constructing a Research Project Data Management Plan http://www.library.uq.edu.au/escholarship/BW_dmp.pdf
  9. VeRSI http://www.versi.edu.au
  10. Intersect http://www.intersect.org.au/
  11. Metadata editor http://www.metadata.net/
  12. ARCS - Australian Research Collaboration Service http://www.arcs.org.au/
  13. Virtual BeamLine http://versi.edu.au/activities/vbl.html
  14. Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative http://www.vlsci.unimelb.edu.au/
  15. National Centre for eSocial Science (NceSS) http://www.ncess.ac.uk/
  16. Arts & Humanities eScience Support Centre (AHESSC) http://www.ahessc.ac.uk
  17. VeRSI award for the PARADISEC project - http://www.versi.edu.au/eResearchAward/announcement.html ;
    PARADISEC Project http://paradisec.org.au/home.html
  18. Silchester Project at the University of Reading http://www.silchester.reading.ac.uk/index.html
  19. VERA http://vera.rdg.ac.uk/
  20. Kerstin Lehnert: New Science Communities for Cyberinfrastructure - The Example of Geochemistry
  21. Daniel Cox and Paul Coddington: ARCS Systems Services and the ARCS National Grid http://www.eresearch.edu.au/cox2008
  22. Andrew Treloar: The Australian National Data Service: one small step for Australia, one potentially giant leap for research.
  23. eResearch Scholarship Centre http://www.esrc.unimelb.edu.au/
  24. eResearch Awareness BoF http://www.versi.edu.au/downloads/eResearchBoFAwareness.pdf
  25. iVec http://www.ivec.org/
  26. Education and Training in eResearch http://wiki.arcs.org.au/EREdu
  27. BoF on Performing arts http://www.ersesearch.edu.au/holledge2008
  28. Aus-Lit Portal http://www.itee.uq.edu.au/~eresearch/projects/aus-e-lit/
  29. Arts, Humanities and Cultural Heritate eResearch Workshop http://www.eresearch.edu.au/ahch-workshop
  30. Mattotea software http://eresearch.jcu.edu.au/software/video-annotation-software-mattotea
  31. Arts and humanities e-Science projects http://www.ahessc.ac.uk/projects
  32. Heurist project http://heuristscholar.org/
  33. South Seas http://southseas.nla.gov.au
  34. Brian Fitzgerald, Anne Fitzgerald, Mark Perry, Scott Kiel-Chisholm, Erin Driscoll, Dilan Thampapillai, Jessica Coates,
    "OAK Law Project Report No. 1 Creating a legal framework for copyright management of open access within the Australian academic and research sector ", August 2006,
  35. gLibrary Project https://glibrary.ct.infn.it/glibrary/index.php
  36. Arts and Humanities eScience initiative http://www.ahrcict.rdg.ac.uk/activities/e-science/

Author Details

Tobias Blanke
Research Fellow
Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre
King's College London

Email: tobias.blanke@kcl.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ahessc.ac.uk

Ann Borda
Executive Director
Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative

Email: ann.borda@versi.edu.au
Web site: http://www.versi.edu.au

Gaby Bright
eResearch Communications
Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative

Email: gabrielle.bright@versi.edu.au
Web site: http://www.versi.edu.au

Bridget Soulsby
Business & Operations Manager
Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre,
The University of Melbourne & Melbourne Health

Email: bsoulsby@unimelb.edu.au
Web site: http://www.psychiatry.unimelb.edu.au/mnc/about/staff/bsoulsby.html

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