Case study: The GeoChronos web portal
When GeoChronos launches, it will serve up a buffet of scientific and social networking ingredients that together empower Earth observation scientists to collaborate and make new discoveries.
The GeoChronos recipe didn't come out right the first time, however. The path the GeoChronos team has followed provides valuable insight into the process of creating a scientific web portal.
"The idea is that scientists can come to a portal where they process and share their data without having to worry about the overall technical details of how that's being done," said Cameron Kiddle, a research fellow for the Grid Research Centre at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
Social networking features and collaborative tools are a must for the project, and so the first GeoChronos prototype ran on Facebook. "We chose Facebook to begin with because it is a very popular social network and it has a very nice interface for adding applications," Kiddle said.
One reason they ultimately went with another platform was the social noise created by scientists' personal use of Facebook, Kiddle said. They also found that they couldn't customize the look and feel of the portal - it would always look like Facebook.
Next, they tried Ning, a free, online service that allows users to create their own social networks.
Ning offers a great deal more opportunity for customization than Facebook. The problem was that it had advertisements - a deal breaker for Arturo Sanchez, director of the Centre for Earth Observation Sciences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "We wanted to have something that was totally commercial-free," said Sanchez, who is also one of the four principal investigators for GeoChronos.
That's when the design team, which is led by Kiddle, decided to try an open source platform called Elgg. "We picked Elgg because it was built from scratch with social networking in mind," Kiddle said. With Elgg, the GeoChronos team was able to download the code, install it on their server, and then tinker with the code to make it do precisely what they want.
As a bonus, some of the Elgg modules Kiddle's team developed for GeoChronos are not specific to Earth observation science. That means that if GeoChronos releases them as open source code, other scientific portals could use them in conjunction with Elgg.
Because Elgg already has the social networking features built in, while Kiddle's team works on developing custom scientific modules for GeoChronos, a small number of users have been testing the existing social networking features.
"People like it; it's always received good reviews," Sanchez said. The problem? "Right now what they see is the social network component of the site… but it's more than that."
"One thing that we're currently working on is a spectral library that enables the scientist to share and analyze the spectral data that they've collected from various centers and sources," Kiddle said. For this to happen, the spectral data from each source, and the metadata - tags that describe the spectral data in each file - must be compatible.
Unfortunately, although there are some standards for metadata, they're either not widely used, or they're only used in one area of Earth observation sciences.
GeoChronos could provide a place where the Earth observation science community can come together to create these standards, Kiddle said. "It could also support ontological mapping [translation] between different metadata standards so that you can effectively search over the data," he added.
By spring 2010, scientists will be able to use the GeoChronos beta to upload applications and data to the cloud, and run interactive analyses and visualizations using computational resources provided via a grid such as WestGrid. At that point, the challenges facing the GeoChronos team will shift to include promotion.
"You still get the image of many of the scientists not being familiar with social media and Web 2.0. There's still some skeptics in the community," Kiddle said. "What's going to make it have greater, wide-spread adoption is having tools on the platform that are going to make people want to come back. Something that is very key to their research - that is going to make or break GeoChronos."
-Miriam Boon, iSGTW