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A little bit of federated Open Notebook Science

3 October 2010 755 views 4 Comments
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
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Jean-Claude Bradley is the master when it comes to organising collaborations around diverse sets of online tools. The UsefulChem and Open Notebook Science Challenge projects both revolved around the use of wikis, blogs, GoogleDocs, video, ChemSpider and whatever tools are appropriate for the job at hand. This is something that has grown up over time but is at least partially formally organised. At some level the tools that get used are the ones Jean-Claude decides will be used and it is in part his uncompromising attitude to how the project works (if you want to be involved you interact on the project’s terms) that makes this work effectively.

At the other end of the spectrum is the small scale, perhaps random collaboration that springs up online, generates some data and continues (or not) towards something a little more organised. By definition such “projectlets” will be distributed across multiple services, perhaps uncoordinated, and certainly opportunistic. Just such a project has popped up over the past week or so and I wanted to document it here.

I have for some time been very interested in the potential of visualising my online lab notebook as a graph. The way I organise the notebook is such that it, at least in a sense, automatically generates linked data and for me this is an important part of its potential power as an approach. I often use a very old graph visualisation in talks I give out the notebook as a way of trying to indicate the potential which I wrote about previously, but we’ve not really taken it any further than that.

A week or so ago, Tony Hirst (@psychemedia) left a comment on a blog post which sparked a conversation about feeds and their use for generating useful information. I pointed Tony at the feeds from my lab notebook but didn’t take it any further than that. Following this he posted a series of graph visualisations of the connections between people tweeting at a set of conferences and then the penny dropped for me…sparking this conversation on twitter.

@psychemedia You asked about data to visualise. I should have thought about our lab notebook internal links! What formats are useful? [link]

@CameronNeylon if the links are easily scrapeable, it’s easy enough to plot the graph eg http://blog.ouseful.info/2010/08/30/the-structure-of-ouseful-info/ [link]

@psychemedia Wouldn’t be too hard to scrape (http://biolab.isis.rl.ac.uk/camerons_labblog) but could possibly get as rdf or xml if it helps? [link]

@CameronNeylon structured format would be helpful… [link]

At this point the only part of the whole process that isn’t publicly available takes place as I send an email to find out how to get an XML download of my blog and then report back  via Twitter.

@psychemedia Ok. XML dump at http://biolab.isis.rl.ac.uk/camerons_labblog/index.xml but I will try to hack some Python together to pull the right links out [link]

Tony suggests I pull out the date and I respond that I will try to get the relevant information into some sort of JSON format, and I’ll try to do that over the weekend. Friday afternoons being what they are and Python being what is I actually manage to do this much quicker than I expect and so I tweet that I’ve made the formatted data, raw data, and script publicly available via DropBox. Of course this is only possible because Tony tweeted the link above to his own blog describing how to pull out and format data for Gephi and it was easy for me to adapt his code to my own needs, an open source win if there ever was one.

Despite the fact that Tony took the time out to put the kettle on and have dinner and I went to a rehearsal by the time I went to bed on Friday night Tony had improved the script and made it available (with revisions) via a Gist, identified some problems with the data, and posted an initial visualisation. On Saturday morning I transfer Tony’s alterations into my own code, set up a local Git repository, push to a new Github repository, run the script over the XML dump as is (results pushed to Github). I then “fix” the raw data by manually removing the result of a SQL insertion attack – note that because I commit and push to the remote repository I get data versioning for free – this “fixing” is transparent and recorded. Then I re-run the script, pushing again to Github. I’ve just now updated the script and committed once more following further suggestions from Tony.

So over a couple of days we used Twitter for communication, DropBox, GitHub, Gists, and Flickr for sharing data and code, and the whole process was carried out publicly. I wouldn’t have even thought to ask Tony about this if he hadn’t  been publicly posting his visualisations (indeed I remember but can’t find an ironic tweet from Tony a few weeks back about it would be clearly much better to publish in a journal in 18 months time when no-one could even remember what the conference he was analysing was about…).

So another win for open approaches. Again, something small, something relatively simple, but something that came together because people were easily connected in a public space and were routinely sharing research outputs, something that by default spread into the way we conducted the project. It never occurred to me at the time, I was just reaching for the easiest tool at each stage, but at every stage every aspect of this was carried out in the open. It was just the easiest and most effective way to do it.

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