In a previous post I introduced our chemical natural language tools OSCAR and OPSIN. They are widely used, but in academia there is a general problem - there isn't a simple way to finance the continued development and maintenance of software . Some disciplines (bioscience, big science) recognize the value of funding software but chemistry doesn't. I can count the following other approaches (there may be combinations)
- Institutional funding. That's the model that ICE: The Integrated Content Environment uses. The major reason is that the University has a major need for the tool and it's cost-effective to do this as it allows important new features to be added.
- Consortium funding. Often a natural progression from the latter. Thus all the major repository software (DSPACE, ePrints, Fedora) and content/courseware (Moodle, Sakai) have a large formal member base of instutions with subventions. These consortia may also be able to raise grants.
- Marginal costs. Some individuals or groups are sufficiently committed that they devote a significant amount of their marginal time to creating. An excellent example of this is George Sheldrick's SHELX where he single-handedly developed the major community tool for crystallographic analysis. I remember the first distributions - in ca 1974 - when it was sent as a compressed deck of FORTRAN cards (think about that). For afficionados there was a single variable A(32768) in which different locations had defined meanings only in George's head. Add EQUIVALENCE, blank COMMON and any alteration to the code except by George led to immediate disaster. A good strategy to avoid forks. My own JUMBO largely falls into this category (but with some OS contribs).
- Commercial release. Many groups have developed methods for generating a commercial income stream. Many of the computational chemistry codes (e.g. Gaussian) go down this route - an academic group either licenses the software to a commercial company, or set up a company themselves, or recover costs from users. The model varies. In some cases charges are only made to non-academics, and in some cases there is an active academic devloper community who contribute to the main branch, such as for CASTEP
- Open Source and Crowdsourcing. This is very common in ICT areas (e.g. Linux) but does not come naturally to chemistry. We have created the BlueObelisk as a loose umbrella organisation for Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source in chemistry. I believe it's now having an important impact on chemical informatics - it encourages innovation and public control of quality. Most of the components are created on marginal costs. It's why we have taken the view that - at the start - all our software is Open. I'll deal with the pros and cons later but note that not all OS projects are suited for crowdsourcing on day one - a reliable infrastructure needs to be created.
- 800-pound gorilla. When a large player comes into an industry sector they can change the business models. We are delighted to be working with Microsoft Research - gorillas can be friendly - who see the whole chemical informatics arena as being based on outdated technology and stovepipe practices. We've been working together on Chem4Word which will transform the role of the semantic document in chemistry. After a successful showing at BioIT we are discussing with Lee Dirks, Alex Wade and Tony Hey the future of C4W
- public targeted productisation. In this there is specific public funding to take an academic piece of software to a properly engineered system. A special organisation, OMII, has been set up in the UK to do this...
So what and why and who and where are OMII? :
OMII-UK is an open-source organisation that empowers the UK research community by providing software for use in all disciplines of research. Our mission is to cultivate and sustain community software important to research. All of OMII-UK's software is free, open source and fully supported.
OMII was set up to exploit and support the fruits of the UK eScience program. It concentrated on middleware, especially griddy stuff, and this is of little use to chemistry which needs Open chemistryware first. However last year I bumped into Dave DeRoure and Carole Goble and they told me of an initiative - ENGAGE - sponsored by JISC - whose role is to help eResearchers directly:
The widespread adoption of e-Research technologies will revolutionise the way that research is conducted. The ENGAGE project plans to accelerate this revolution by meeting with researchers and developing software to fulfil their needs. If you would like to benefit from the project, please contact ENGAGE (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit their website (www.engage.ac.uk).
ENGAGE combines the expertise of OMII-UK and the NGS ? the UK?s foremost providers of e-Research software and e-Infrastructure. The first phase, which began in September, is currently identifying and interviewing researchers that could benefit from e-Research but are relatively new to the field. "The response from researchers has been very positive" says Chris Brown, project leader of the interview phase, "we are learning a lot about their perceptions of e-Research and the problems they have faced". Eleven groups, with research interests that include Oceanography, Biology and Chemistry, have already been interviewed.
The results of the interviews will be reviewed during ENGAGE's second phase. This phase will identify and publicise the 'big issues' that are hindering e-Research adoption, and the 'big wins' that could help it. Solutions to some of the big issues will be developed and made freely available so that the entire research community will benefit. The solutions may involve the development of new software, which will make use of OMII-UK's expertise, or may simply require the provision of more information and training. Any software that is developed will be deployed and evaluated by the community on the NGS. "It's very early in the interview phase, but we?re already learning that researchers want to be better informed of new developments and are keen for more training and support." says Chris Brown.
ENGAGE is a JISC-funded project that will collaborate with two other JISC projects ? e-IUS and e-Uptake ? to further e-Research community engagement within the UK. "To improve the uptake of e-Research, we need to make sure that researchers understand what e-Research is and how it can benefit them" says Neil Chue Hong, OMII-UK's director, "We need to hear from as many researchers and as many fields of research as possible, and to do this, we need researchers to contact ENGAGE."
Dave and Carole indicated that OSCAR could be a candidate for an ENGAGE project and so we've been working with OMII. We had our first f2f meeting on Thursday where Neil, and two colleagues, Steve and Steve came up from Southampton (that's where OMII is centered although they have projects and colleagues elsewhere). We had a very useful session where OMII have taken the ownership of the process of refactoring OSCAR and also evangelising it. They've gone into OSCAR's architecture in depth and commented favourably on it. They are picking PeterC's brains so that they are able to navigate through OSCAR. The sorts of things that they will address are:
- Singletons and startup resources
- configuration (different options at statup, vocabularies, etc.)
- documentation, examples and tutorials
- regression testing
- modularisation (e.g. OPSIN and pre- and post-processing)
And then there is the evangelism. Part of OMII-ENGAGE's remit is to evangelise, through brochures and meetings. So we are tentatively planning an Open OSCAR-ENGAGE meeting in Cambridge in June. Anyone interested at this early stage should mail me and I'll pass it onto the OMII folks.
... and now OPSIN...