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Supporting eResearch: The Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative

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Ann Borda reports on the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI).

The Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI) [1] was the first State-funded initiative of its kind in Australia. The establishment of VeRSI follows on the heels of the former Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) [2] decision to commission the then Australian eResearch Coordinating Committee [3] to undertake a comprehensive review of eResearch and to recommend how Australia, cognisant of efforts elsewhere, such as the UK eScience Programme [4], could coordinate a national eResearch initiative.

One of the recommendations of the Committee was the foundation of an eResearch Centre consisting of a coordinating body and six state-based nodes in each State to facilitate the transfer of eResearch methodologies to the research community [5].

The government of the State of Victoria, through Multimedia Victoria [6], had been thinking along similar lines and in 2006 announced funding for VeRSI as part of its Life Science Statement. VeRSI was set up in the same year as an AU$8m-funded eResearch programme running over 5 years (2006-2011). Its primary aim is to accelerate and coordinate the uptake of eResearch in universities, government departments and research organisations within the State of Victoria and to inform, through exemplars, other programmes in Australia and abroad.

VeRSI was formed as a collaborative unincorporated joint venture and comprises the following Consortium members: The University of Melbourne [7], Monash University [8] and La Trobe University [9] and the Department of Primary Industries [10]. VeRSI is overseen by a Programme Coordinating Committee (VPCC) consisting of its members and a representative from MultiMedia Victoria. The VPCC is chaired by an independent member.

Building Capabilities

The VeRSI Programme works with selected research groups to develop demonstrator use cases illustrating the benefits of eResearch to researchers, primarily in the areas of life sciences and eco-sciences – with a recent growth in other disciplines, such as the humanities. Among its projects, VeRSI has an established relationship with the Australian Synchrotron [11] – a national facility – to support remote networking and access to several beamlines.

VeRSI's approach is to work in tandem with researchers to ensure that their eResearch needs are met, and that resulting applications are intuitive and reflect the language the researchers expect and use themselves. A skills matrix method is used for resourcing software development projects and this has proven more suitable than the conventional 'project-based' approach. Inherent in the conventional approach is the assumption that each project contains all the skills and resources necessary for the project. For each VeRSI project, 'skills' are coordinated so that they are incorporated as necessary during the project lifecycle. Furthermore VeRSI is supportive of the agile software development methodology and relies on an iterative cycle with clients - ranging from initiation to planning, to testing and deployment.

The VeRSI mode of engagement has in part been informed by the 'collaboratories' or 'living labs' examples in the U.S. and Europe respectively [12] in which a group of skilled experts is brought together to solve research problems which prove insuperable for individuals alone. The outcomes of the ENGAGE Programme in the UK, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), the National eScience Centre (NeSC) activities and NSF Cyberinfrastructure have had significant bearing on the methodologies of approach as well [13].

In terms of the capability outputs from VeRSI, they have thus far consisted of knowledge and expertise, designs and technology solutions and advanced open source software. All of these commodities have value that are directly intended to enhance the quality of research, bring timelier research outcomes, catalyse international collaborations, and provide opportunities to both Victorian and national industry.

Data-centric Research

There is widespread acceptance that eResearch is primarily about data. Aspects of data management go across every activity of VeRSI, and a key objective of the programme is to assist researchers in managing the already huge and rapidly increasing amounts of data they are generating.

As a critical component of an end-to-end data management environment, VeRSI has established a federated data storage solution (a 474 TB storage grid) comprising nodes located at The University of Melbourne, Monash University, and La Trobe University, and a 10 TB node at the Victorian Partnership for Advanced Computing (VPAC) [14] to access high-performance computing resources. The storage grid is supporting a number of storage protocols, including Storage Resource Broker (SRB) [15], and it will be linked to the national Australian Research Collaboration Service's (ARCS) Data Fabric [16]. In time, this proto-service will be considered in terms of added 'services' when more user requirements are gathered and more can be drawn from their experience of using virtualised storage. Researchers at the Australian Synchrotron are among the first users onto the system.

This solution is intended to provide VeRSI projects the opportunity for access to the data storage and defined services as a means of supporting their data management efforts. Not least, it is intended to raise awareness among the Victorian research community and host institutions about the importance of research data management and support of best practice in this area.

VeRSI is also committed to work with the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) [17] initiative in the support of data management planning from the researcher level upwards to whole institutional policies. In the VeRSI Access & Use Storage Policy it specifically requests permission to view a data management plan prior to providing access to the solution, and so to ensure compliance with institutional and funding requirements. In the absence of a local data management plan, VeRSI will aid researchers in the development of a plan [18].

An example of a data-centric solution is the Ambulatory Motion Studies Project.

The Rehabilitation Sciences Research Centre at Austin Health [19], together with the University of Melbourne, has led an ambulatory gait research programme that is using Vicon [20] video-based motion analysis systems and GAITRite [21] sensor carpets to collect gait data for analysis.

When gait analysis data are correlated with other clinical data, they can aid in the detection of serious illnesses such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease. They can be extremely valuable in the rehabilitation of trauma and stroke patients, aid in the development and fitting of prostheses and provide insight into the construction of people-friendly built environments.

The role of the VeRSI project is to develop a data management environment that enables gait motion data to become a shareable resource and support research into diagnostics and treatment regimes. Presently, a Web2.0 interface to a MySQL database has provided a simplified means for creating and editing patient records in a format compatible with other medical databases. There are further features to allow automation of data upload, searching, querying and profiling together with the ability to display clinical cross-sections graphically. It also allows the researchers to share their data with external colleagues and incorporate other researcher's datasets.

photo (39KB) : Figure 1 : Gaby Bright, VeRSI eResearch Communications Manager, testing the Gaitrite sensor carpet Collaborative Technologies

Figure 1: Gaby Bright, VeRSI eResearch Communications Manager, testing the Gaitrite sensor carpet Collaborative Technologies

Collaborative Technologies

A key area of work for VeRSI is applying ICT to support and enrich research collaborations. Two particular factors are critical to the deployment of collaborative technologies, namely:

  1. Geographical distance; and
  2. Cost-effectiveness due to finite timescale and funding.

Similarly, in environments where there are distributed systems or heterogeneous partnerships (e.g. university and government departments), the deployment of a Virtual Organisation (VO) is one form of collaborative technology that provides a common platform for access and sharing.

In the VeRSI case, VOs are based upon the notion of a Collaborative Work Environment (CWE) that provides 'the ability to collaborate over time and space, within and between organizations or communities [...] to achieve flexibility by making best use of the knowledge and competences available' [22].

Within this environment, researchers need to control and monitor access to resources, including information and data, research tools and services, often across different institutions where different security systems apply. Such control requires an authentication and authorisation system that in turn relies on effective identity management.

The VeRSI Security & Access framework addresses these issues, using Shibboleth [23], and implementing Identity and Access Management in line with the Australian Access Federation (AAF) [24] recommendations. The framework is a feature of the VeRSI VO in which VOs are accessed using Shibboleth single sign-on, and in which a single means of authentication to a range of resources is provided. It is a prerequisite that the VO members must be registered at either an institutional Identity Provider (IdP) or authorised by VeRSI in line with the AAF policies to access the VO through a 'VeRSI Open IdP' [25].

An example of a VO-based project is the Futurescapes Climate Change Demonstrator. In this initiative, VeRSI is working with the Department of Primary Industries, Monash, Melbourne and La Trobe Universities and the Department of Sustainable Environment (DSE) through the Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Project (VCCAP) [26] to provide a collaborative environment to inform agricultural, land use and built-environment policy-making into the next decades.

The vision for the project is to provide 'a whole of Victoria platform providing public, policy & research access to knowledge to understand and plan for sustaining the ecology and economy of Victoria'.

VeRSI's first objective was to provide the tools to support the large, online collaboration necessary for a project of this magnitude. Subsequently, a collaborative VO was established that now supports 65 users from across the partner sites, 250 climate model files and 400 documents of importance to the collaboration. Additionally, VeRSI is continuing to contribute to the development of visualisation tools for better communication of the research outcomes, as well as workflow and integration tools.

screenshot (16KB) : Figure 2 : Screenshots from the Futurescapes Climate Change Demonstrator

Figure 2: Screenshots from the Futurescapes Climate Change Demonstrator

Remote Access: Australian Synchrotron

The Australian Synchrotron, located in Melbourne, is one of only two synchrotrons in the southern hemisphere. Because of the significant cost and complexity of synchrotrons they are, without exception, shared by a wide community of scientists.

The VeRSI Virtual BeamLine (VBL) [27] Project provides solutions for two specific challenges which arise when dealing with large, shared infrastructure such as the Australian Synchrotron:

  1. Researchers need to travel to the facility - this is often expensive and inconvenient; and
  2. Researchers are confronted by the need to take huge amounts of observational data back to their laboratories.

One component of the VBL is an advanced, high-quality video conferencing system that enhances communication between scientists, no matter where they are, and their colleagues and beamline scientists at the synchrotron. Using this tool, scientists can discuss problems with experts, monitor experiments from their laboratory, office or home.

A high-quality video image of the protein crystallography (PX1) beamline allows a remote scientist to observe an experiment from halfway across the world, and concurrently team leaders can mentor their staff and students as they collect data at the synchrotron site. The video system is currently only fitted to the protein crystallography beamline but, thanks to the modular design, is being added to other beamlines. The VBL video collaboration system is presently available to all users of the PX1 free of cost.

eResearch and the Next Generation

Practitioners are acutely aware that the transition to eResearch may well be measured in years rather than months. As a consequence, it is very important to engage with the next generation of researchers and even the generations beyond that. The VeRSI Educational Virtual BeamLine (eVBL) [28] provides an example where science is reaching out into the education space, exciting young minds, through better awareness and understanding, to consider a research career.

The eVBL is a Web-accessible experiment designed and operated by VeRSI at the Australian Synchrotron through which teachers and students can control a real synchrotron experiment from their classroom.

Intense white light produced by the synchrotron is split into several rays in the optical diagnostic beamline; the eVBL uses one of these rays and a simple, motor-controlled experimental rig to perform Thomas Young's classic double-slit diffraction experiment under a variety of experimental conditions (see Figure 3). The experiment is routinely used by students undertaking the VCE Physics Unit 4, Study Area 2: Interaction of Light and Matter.

screenshot (59) : Figure 3 : Images from the VeRSI Educational Virtual BeamLine (eVBL)

Figure 3: Images from the VeRSI Educational Virtual BeamLine (eVBL)

Communications and Outreach

Finally, a key objective of VeRSI is to promote an awareness of eResearch. The VeRSI projects aim to provide real and relevant examples of how eResearch can deliver benefits to researchers - the awareness programme is bringing these activities and benefits to the attention of the widest possible community.

The approach involves the VeRSI eNewsletters, weekly eCoffee [29] meetings at the eResearch Centres at Melbourne and Monash University, with plans for monthly eCoffees at La Trobe University. This complements proactive engagement in workshops, seminars and conferences, for example, the international eResearch Australasia Conference [30], and presentations and demonstrations to discipline groups. The recognition, for instance, of the growing contribution of researchers to humanities eResearch has led to an inaugural VeRSI eResearch award that was conferred on the PARADISEC (Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures) Project in 2008 [31]. Through these activities the eResearch community is growing in Victoria and VeRSI is becoming recognised as a connection point for researchers and technologists alike.

Many have pointed out that the challenges to eResearch communication are far from surmounted, however. VeRSI is undertaking active investigation into the areas of eCollaboration and message dissemination as part of its programme. Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions, such as that run at the eResearch Australasia conference [32], explore opportunities for speaking directly to researchers or ICT administrators by engaging with them directly, and soliciting their views. eCollaboration research is currently being carried out using biomedical research groups as case studies, tracking the role that collaboration tools play in supporting and enhancing international research. As yet there remain gaps in collaboration or outreach in relation to eResearch skill development and training. This is a continuing dialogue that has no Federal or co-ordinated solution in Australia. However it is recognised by VeRSI and others in both the national and international community that the conversation is very necessary. In this context it is interesting to note that an Australian group of eResearch practitioners and service providers has just established a mailing list to further the discussion, to share knowledge about existing training options and to look at developing more formal programmes [33].

Knowledge Reuse and Transfer

Encouragement of open-source software, online publication and sharing of experimental data and derived results can test the ability of the eResearch community to measure real research outputs and subsequent knowledge transfer. VeRSI is committed to addressing these barriers. In this regard, it has a specific mandate to deploy its own solutions as modular, shareable and open.

Thus far, VeRSI has shared its project solutions with university and research organisations in the State of Victoria, and with national and international organisations, notably through the VBL activity. VBL component solutions have been taken up by the Opal Bragg Institute [34] and the Canadian Light Source Synchrotron [35], among others.

This has proven a successful means of fostering a larger community around VeRSI activity. A second advantage of the approach is that the models used to provide this proto-infrastructure serve as deployment guides for other organisations. This relates to an essential aspect of VeRSI's role to provide independent advice to the research community on technology, services, infrastructure, demonstrable use and applicability.

VeRSI is further committed to extend its collaborative activity; for instance, in terms of collaboration with service providers in the area of commodification of its solutions, hosting, and in delivering proto-services for deployment in the wider community through ARCS, for example. More immediately, the VeRSI Consortium has three eResearch Centres among its partners, namely Monash, Melbourne and La Trobe Universities. Each Centre has been established during the lifetime of VeRSI. The newest entry is La Trobe and the most mature among the group is Monash. There is particular scope to examine closer ties with these respective Centres in delivering specific programmes based on a range of identified researcher needs.. Similarly, VeRSI is seeking opportunities to work with other eResearch programmes, like the New South Wales State-funded initiative, Intersect [36], and the National eInfrastructure Architecture TaskForce (NEAT) [37], which is building and embedding e-Research methods and tools in research communities.

In these ways among others, VeRSI is steadily enriching its partnerships with a present goal to leverage and keep in alignment with State government, national and research-funded activities, and as part of its evolving strategy for a phase 3 (post-2011). Such alignments are equally critical to scaling knowledge transfer and 'value adds'. International partnerships are also being sought given the common challenges, enablers, and solutions which eResearch universally shares.

Conclusion

Importantly, the vision of a coordinated Victorian eResearch strategy is necessarily broader than the boundaries of VeRSI and its partners. There is a growing, diverse and rich network that is driving eResearch in the State, for example the work by recently established University eResearch Centres, such as the Monash eResearch Centre [38], BioGrid [39], VeRNET [40], and the newly announced Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI). The VLSCI, for instance, will be the first of its kind in Australia and is intended to be one of the world's most powerful supercomputers and leading computational biology facilities [41].

Together these eResearch activities are assisting in elevating the status of Victoria's universities and research organisations, in the delivery of faster and more exhaustive research results, and in significantly reinforcing Victoria's position, and that of Australia, as a knowledge-based economy. Ideally, this positioning will also encourage richer eResearch collaboration with and outcomes for the international community.

References

  1. Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative (VeRSI) http://versi.edu.au/
  2. DEST renamed The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) http://www.dest.gov.au/  [which was subsequently replaced by two succeeding agencies in September 2013:  Department of Education http://www.education.gov.au/ and Department of Employment http://www.employment.gov.au/ - Editor (9 July 2014)]
  3. The Platforms for Collaboration (http://www.pfc.org.au/) capability under NCRIS (http://ncris.innovation.gov.au/)
    builds on the work of the e-Research Coordinating Committee whose Final Report was accepted by the Australian Government in April 2007.
  4. UK eScience Programme http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/escience/
  5. An Australian e-Research Strategy and Implementation Framework
    http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/research_sector/publications_resources/profiles/e_research_strat_imp_framework.htm
  6. Multimedia Victoria (MMV) http://www.mmv.vic.gov.au/
  7. The University of Melbourne http://www.unimelb.edu.au/
  8. Monash University http://www.monash.edu.au/
  9. La Trobe University eResearch Australasia 2008 http://www.eresearch.edu.au/
  10. The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/
  11. Australian Synchrotron http://www.synchrotron.org.au/
  12. Science of collaboratories http://www.scienceofcollaboratories.org/ and Open Living Labs http://www.openlivinglabs.eu/
  13. ENGAGE http://www.engage.ac.uk/ ; NeSC http://www.nesc.acu.uk/ ; NSF Cyberinfrastructure http://www.nsf.gov/oci/
  14. Victorian Partnership for Advanced Computing (VPAC) http://www.vpac.org/
  15. Storage Resource Broker (SRB) http://www.sdsc.edu/srb/index.php/Main_Page
  16. Australian Research Collaboration Service (ARCS) http://www.arcs.org.au/
  17. Australian National Data Service (ANDS) http://ands.org.au/about-ands.html
  18. See: Constructing a Research Project Data Management Plan
    http://www.library.uq.edu.au/escholarship/BW_dmp.pdf
  19. Rehabilitation Sciences Research Centre http://www.physioth.unimelb.edu.au/rsrc/
  20. VICON http://www.vicon.com/
  21. Gaitrite http://www.gaitrite.com/
  22. Ballesteros, I. L., editor (2006). Workshop Report on Collaborative Environments in the Future Enterprise.
    European Commission, March.
  23. Shibboleth: http://shibboleth.internet2.edu/
  24. Australian Access Federation (AAF) http://www.aaf.edu.au/
  25. OpenIdP http://openid.net/
  26. Victorian Climate Change Adaptation Program (VCCAP)
    http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/dpi/vro/vrosite.nsf/pages/climate_vccap
  27. Virtual BeamLine (VBL) http://versi.edu.au/activities/vbl.html
  28. educational Virtual Beam Line (eVBL) http://vbl.synchrotron.org.au/BeamLineAccess/eVBL/index.php
  29. VeRSI eCoffee http://versi.edu.au/versi/ecoffee.html
  30. eResearch Australasia Conference http://www.eresearch.edu.au/
  31. PARADISEC Project http://paradisec.org.au/home.html
  32. eResearch BoF: Raising Awareness and Increasing the Uptake of eResearch
    http://www.eresearch.edu.au/bright2008
  33. Education and Training in eResearch Wiki http://wiki.arcs.org.au/EREdu
  34. ANSTO Bragg Institute http://www.ansto.gov.au/research/bragg_institute
  35. Canadian Light Source http://www.lightsource.ca/
  36. Intersect http://www.intersect.org.au/
  37. The National eResearch Architecture Taskforce (NEAT) http://www.pfc.org.au/bin/view/Main/NeAT
  38. Monash eResearch Centre http://www.monash.edu.au/eresearch/
  39. BioGrid http://www.biogrid.org.au/
  40. VeRNET http://www.vernet.net.au/
  41. Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI) http://www.vlsci.unimelb.edu.au/

Author Details

Dr. Ann Borda
Executive Director
Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative

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

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Date published: 
30 January 2009

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How to cite this article

Ann Borda. "Supporting eResearch: The Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative". January 2009, Ariadne Issue 58 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue58/borda/


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