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Collaborations Workshop 2011 – registration now open

Following hot on the heels of the 7 Feb workshop for digital curators, is a workshop for researchers who use software, software developers, project managers and funders. The software preservation project is supporting this Collaborations Workshop – it is a key opportunity to disseminate the findings and messages of the work to these target audiences. Read on, if you’re interested…

If you use software in your research – or want to use it in the future – the Collaborations Workshop (CW11) is the perfect opportunity for you to meet people who you could work with.

The two-day workshop brings together researchers who use software, funders and software developers. Its goal is to provide attendees with everything needed to create successful collaborations. It’s the perfect forum for people to discuss their research and their project’s requirements, and then meet the people who can fulfil those requirements.

Who should attend

  • Researchers from all disciplines who use software, or want to use it in their research
  • Software developers
  • Project managers
  • Funders

No more death by powerpoint!

What we discuss at the workshop depends on the interests of the workshop’s attendees. We use a flexible agenda: attendees suggest the topics for discussion before and during the workshop. At the workshop, we take a vote and only the most popular topics make the agenda.

Discuss your research and your project’s needs

Any attendee can elect to present a lightening talk. It’s the perfect opportunity to advertise your work and let people know who you want to collaborate with. (There is limited time for lightening talks, so book early!)

After your talk, anyone who is interested in working with you can organise time to meet with you and discuss a potential collaboration.

Talk with funders

Collaboration without funding is difficult. This year, we’re inviting funders from the research councils and the private sector to attend the meeting for a meet the funders session. This will give these important groups the opportunity to discuss their plans for 2011.

Engage software developers

The Collaborations Workshop was developed to meet the needs of researchers who use software. If you are in this group – or want to be – you can meet with a variety of software experts at the workshop.

Workshop for digital curators

Image courtesy of Jrwooley6

Sorry – but this workshop is now full! To get the headlines from the day, click here.

Are you a digital curator who thinks, like us, that software preservation is increasingly a consideration for you and your organisation and you want a head start in the subject? If so, we’ve got the event for you.

As the final part of our study, we’re holding a FREE workshop for digital curators and repository managers to understand and discuss the particular challenges of software preservation. It’s on Monday 7 February 2011 and will be held in London. There is increasingly a need to preserve software: for example software is sometimes needed to unlock accompanying research data and make it (re)usable, or software is often a research output in its own right. The workshop’s premise is that curators and software developers will need to collaborate to preserve software: the curator needing the technical knowledge of the developer, and the developer needing the preservation expertise and mandate of the curator. This workshop is intended to be the first ‘bridging’ event between these two previously separate communities – so ground-breaking in its own small way. Friendly technical expertise will be provided by the Software Sustainability Institute and the STFC. It’s a workshop for curation practitioners where real examples can be discussed and useful advice exchanged.

Our briefing paper targeted at curators gives you a taster of what’ll be explored in more detail at the event.

Benefits of attending:

  • You stay abreast of key developments in your professional field
  • Your organisation gets a headstart in this up and coming area
  • You get free technical advice from the Software Sustainability Institute
  • You get some great networking opportunities

Registration will open at 10:30am, with the workshop starting promptly at 11am on Monday 7 February at Brettenham House. Lunch will be provided. We are aiming to finish the event at 3pm but will be holding a surgery-style session for additional queries, and walk-throughs of the methodologies available to help you, until 4pm.

Detailed agenda:

Read all about it

Stack of papers

We’ve started to publish our final outputs. Hurray! Thanks to the hard work of the SSI outreach guru Simon Hettrick they are shaping up very nicely indeed – giving them style as well as substance.

They’re all linked here:

So far we have the Benefits Framework – a big reference of knowledge about software preservation – and one of our series of briefing papers. The rest are coming soon…


Nature of software sustainability

Image courtesy of Carl Johan

Nature has published on software in the computational sciences. The column is entitled ‘Publish your computer code: it is good enough‘ and is itself a good read. There is an accompanying article (or is it the other way round?!) entitled ‘Computational science… Error‘.

Reading the comments and other blog responses (eg Anthony Fejes, Bruce Berriman) shows the considerable degree of consensus on the problem and form of solutions. Publishing code is critical, but so are the ongoing activities of further development, documentation, community building, etc. It also demonstrates yet again the inter-relatedness of openness, sustainability and preservation as concepts.

Our project perspective is very closely aligned to all that has been said. Both software engineering and openness support software preservation. We would like to see the good practice described become common practice.

Read all about it (soon)!

Stack of papers

(Late) on Friday we submitted our draft guidance to our JISC programme manager to review.  Wahey!

As we’d originally intended we’ve produced a range of guidance documents aimed at different target audiences. In total there are eight briefing papers, one benefits framework, one crib sheet, one technical evaluation report and one completion report. Our target audiences  span software developers, researchers, software managers, curators/archivists, the Research Councils, and the JISC. Their final home is going to be the SSI website, whose own resources are coming along very nicely – see for instance their approaches to sustainability and sustainability links.

Hopefully (fingers crossed!) in a couple of weeks our guidance will all be finalised and ready for release to the world… watch this space!

Does the way that scientists develop and use scientific software influence its sustainability?

Another interesting and relevant paper – thanks to Mark Plumbley at the Software for Audio and Music Researchers project. Its entitled ‘How Do Scientists Develop and Use Scientific Software?‘ and is by Hannay et al. One of the authors is Greg Wilson who runs the excellent Software Carpentry course – intended to give researchers better skills in software development. Throughout our study, people have said that better software engineering skills would lead to better software preservation and sustainability. The Significant Properties of Software report perhaps put it best when it said: Good software preservation arises from good software engineering.

To that end, the Hannay paper presents the results of a survey conducted online in October–December 2008 (which received almost 2000 responses) that has relevance to this. The paper’s main conclusions are that:

  1. “the knowledge required to develop and use scientific software is primarily acquired from peers and through self-study, rather than from formal education and training;
  2. the number of scientists using supercomputers is small compared to the number using desktop or intermediate computers;
  3. most scientists rely primarily on software with a large user base;
  4. while many scientists believe that software testing is important, a smaller number believe they have sufficient understanding about testing concepts; and
  5. that there is a tendency for scientists to rank standard software engineering concepts higher if they work in large software development projects and teams, but that there is no uniform trend of association between rank of importance of software engineering concepts and project/team size.”

Reasons for sharing, and not sharing, code

Image courtesy of imagesbyk2 Photography

Just came across a great MIT Sloan Research Paper from Victoria Stodden. It’s entitled The Scientific Method in Practice: Reproducibility in the Computational Sciences. The highlights include the results from a survey of computational scientists from the field of machine learning. Many different reasons for sharing both data and code are explored, but below I’ve just provided the five most common answers for sharing and not sharing code (% respondents in brackets). How do they fit with your own views?

# Reason for sharing code Reason for not sharing code
1 Encouraging scientific advancement (91%) The time it takes to clean up and document for release (78%)
2 Encouraging sharing and having others share with you (90%) Dealing with questions from users about the code (56%)
3 Being a good community member (87%) The possibility that your code may be used without citation (45%)
4 Increase in publicity (85%) The possibility of patents or other IP constraints (40%)
5 Improvement in the caliber of research (84%) Legal barriers, such as copyright (34%)

So the big barrier to more sharing more code is the overhead of getting it ready for release and the overhead of dealing with user queries once released. As Victoria goes onto say “this is interesting because it speaks to an incentive misalignment in the reward structure for scientific structure… [and] … suggests a strong need to account for code and data release directly in the research review process.” Our qualitative research we did at our community engagement workshop certainly chimes in with this.

These overheads, and the issues around IP, are also likely for other types of, and approaches to, software preservation. Part of our project will be to make recommendations on how to create the right sort of incentives for sharing and preservation when it is appropriate.

Another purpose of preservation…?

Interesting snippet from the news this week: BBC Micros used in retro programming class

Old machines at the National Museum of Computing are being used as part of the Computing A-Level. Old tech beating new tech in the pursuit of education. What a novel and great use of preserved hardware. Nothing in the article about preserved software though – perhaps as the focus of the class was to code a game of battleships!

Flexible values

Canon in 2D

Just the thought of the effort and cost required to implement software preservation measures can seem high when compared to the potential benefit. The costs are self-evident, whereas the benefits are not. One way of dealing with this impasse is to not to splurge now, but to invest a little to give you the option of doing something more in the future. In essence, get value from flexibility.

How does this work in practice? Take for instance the end of a project where you’ve built and used some fragile and not-particularly-well-documented software. It did the immediate job, but isn’t ready for anything else. The follow-on project that should build on the software doesn’t start until next year, or is contingent on getting more grant funding. The traditional options might be to either do nothing with the software and go straight into the next activity (i.e. abandon ship and let the software and tacit knowledge fester), or to spend a couple of weeks fully documenting the software and making it robust.

Instead, do the minimum necessary for high-level documentation and basic test data. Commit to reviewing the software’s prospects in a year or so. If there has been subsequent interest (internal or external) in the software that could lead to sizeable benefits (institutional reuse, kudos through external use, etc.) then whatever additional effort is required to achieve those benefits can be considered. If not, then little has been lost. Without the upfront effort, you either have an uphill struggle to go from scratch (= big lose!) or you’d have saved a small amount of effort (= small win).

Giving yourself some flexibility – by leaving code in a recoverable state rather than abandoning it – could well be an effective strategy for many. It has minimal upfront costs but retains the potential benefits. The value of such flexibility can be sizeable: a stitch in time saves nine.

Where have all my photos gone?!

Image courtesy of auggie tolosa under Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

A preservation expert recently told me that he and his team used to have trouble conveying the imperative for digital content preservation. There was no everyday story that made the issue real for the man on the street. Then digital photography took off, and people – everyone – started to store digital photos on their computers. Instantly there was a great example: everyone can relate to the fragile nature of beloved photos being stored on a computer, which is prone to breakdowns, viruses, non-compatible updates and other techno-disasters. Losing the only photo of that family gathering on the hot summer’s day when little Johnnie said his first words is a horribly vivid thought.

Persuading people to keep photos and other files in a non-proprietary format and to make regular backups has become much, much easier. In other words, it has become a whole lot easier to sell the concept of digital preservation. My question is: what’s the equivalent for software preservation? Is there any software so ubiquitous and so valuable that it can be used to sell the concept of software preservation? Not necessarily to the masses, but at least to a broader audience? Answers please on a digital postcard…