Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Eresearch services

About a year ago I posted my two cents worth on what an eresearch support service should look like.

A year or so on, and innumerable conversations with users, potential users and people who are interested I find my views are not much changed:

User wants can be broadly summarised as

  • storage
    • dropbox like sharing capability
    • lots of it
    • handling of diverse media types (agnostic)
    • assurance it is secure backed up and accessible
  • virtual machines
    • data analysis & manipulation
  • secure long term storage of data
    • publication of data for substantiation
    • digital object identifiers
  • advice on legacy data
    • format conversion
    • media conversion
    • digitisation
    • some bespoke programming, data wrangling etc

Dropbox is extremely popular because of its ease of use and universality, meaning people can share data from the field with colleagues, with colleagues overseas etc.

I have a second life in which I review books - it’s noticable that in the past year publishers have moved from sending you the epub or mobi version to sharing it with you via dropbox. I don’t see any reason why researchers should be any different in their habits.

This ease of sharing and the fact that Dropbox is hosted outwith Australia is something that of course gives intellectual property managers the willies, but it is also a fact of life, and something that has to be dealt with - in other words, as Dropbox is already out there in the wild, what ever is provided as a replacement has to be at least as good, and at least as flexible - which of course means it will bring the same intellectual property concerns.

And of course it’s not just Dropbox, we can say the same about Evernote, OneDrive, OneNote and Google Drive.

However in the course of my conversations one thing that comes up over and over again is the need for decent work in progress storage, and work in progress storage into which it is easy to load data, either by direct capture from instruments, or by some easy finder/file manager like process - people expect to be able to drag’n’drop and tellin them about some command line incantation with rsync doesn’t play.

There is an interest in data publication, but at the moment it’s basically driven by journals requiring that data has to be made available, but I expect that this will build as more and more journals require this. I also expect to see more interest in publishing source code and things like R scripts as part of the whole substantiation and open review thing.

There’s also an undercurrent of people wanting to return to research they did earlier and finding themselves locked out of their data because it’s been stored on media no longer in common use - such as zip drives, or in older data formats that made sense at the time. We could rehearse the open formats argument here, but that doesn’t fix the problem, which needs to be addressed. Allied to this is the need for a little bespoke programming or data wrangling to get data into a usable format, or to clean data.

So, one year on I’d say change hasn’t happened, but there’s nothing to say that it won’t …

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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Munich to ditch Linux ?

The internet has been all a-twitter today with the news that Munich was considering dumping Linux and going back to Microsoft.

I’m not surprised. Saddened perhaps, but not surprised. Much as Apple through the iPad owns the tablet space, Microsoft still owns the office desktop, and this means that if you want to do something different you have to not only do it as well as Microsoft, you have to do it better.

So let’s look at the Linux software environment and compare it with Microsoft. And of course when we’re talking about local government we’re largely taking about administrative and management tasks, which means word processing, spreadsheets, email and workflows - in other words office applications.

Libre Office and Open Office basically do everything Microsoft Office does, but slightly more clunkily and clever formatting in Office documents sometimes comes out a little wierd, especially if the original document has been edited with two or three different versions of Office, but in the main it’s perfectly usable. You’d be being snippy to say it wasn’t.

Ditto for evolution as a mail and calendar client. Not as polished as outlook but perfectly usable. And if you were a private individual or running a little home business there’s no reason why Linux wouldn’t work for you. The same argument applies to Macs and OS X. Or running anything with Google Docs.

And then there’s collaboration, workflows, business automation, call it what you will. Sharepoint does that pretty well. And in the Linux world?

Sure there are solutions but they usually involve keeping squads of wild eyed sandal wearing geeks in the basement - ie you can’t just license it, get some nice consultants in at inflated prices to configure it for you and leave it running the way you want.

And there’s lots of things out there to integrate. Useful things like invoicing and payment management solutions. Move to something definitely not mainstream and you have to re-engineer every damn thing …

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Wednesday, 13 August 2014


I recently happened across an application called Multcloud.

To be honest, the manufacturers asked me if I was interested in reviewing it.

I declined, because, as a matter of policy I don’t write reviews on things I havn’t tested on myself by using them for real work, or for which payment (or some other inducement) is offered. I’ve always believed in eating my own dogfood, and I find that way I sleep better at night.

However, I was sufficiently curious to take a look.

The idea is quite simple - we all have multiple cloud based accounts, OneDrive, GoogleDrive, Box, and the rest and we all end up with files scattered across all of them, and if you’re like me have different machines that mount different subsets of these drives.

The idea is to provide you with a browser window into which you connect all your accounts, and then which allows you to search across them just as you would search the disks attached to your pc, and to copy files between them.

No a stupid idea - in fact quite a good idea. Obviously there’s a raft of security concerns but the vendors claim on their website that all authentication is by OAauth, and that no data is cached on their servers.

Now as I said, I havn’t tested this tool, and have no idea how well it performs. It’s also not the only such application out there - a little googling comes up with a list of alternatives. However this is a product that might well fill a need for some people. Remember that your mileage may vary …

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Monday, 11 August 2014

Zotero, RefMan and Jabref

Zotero is a rather nice bibliography manager which can export references in a number of formats, including BibTex.

I was playing with reference managers last week trying to work out a set of workflows to get the information exported for reloading into a different solution - it’s the old problem of tracking people’s publication history and loading it into a research management system.

There’s a good little BibTex exporter for Zotero known as autozotbib that works as a plugin for both the desktop client and firefox that pushes the records out in BibTex as they are updated.

If you use dropbox for filesharing you can of course output the export file directly to Dropbox, which makes it readily accessible to a number of other reference management products, including JabRef.

In the course of playing about with this I also tried installing RefMan on my Android tablet, and telling it to read the Zotero output file - which it did.

Now I’m by no means a power Zotero user, but one thing I do sometimes need to do is check references and information, and something that increasingly I find myself going to a tablet to do so because of their extreme portability rather than using either a Chromebook or one of my aging netbooks. While I’ve only got one way synchronization - ie all the changes have to be made to the Zotero end of things, this little trick makes it comparatively easy to search reference lists with a native (and free) android app …

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