Application profiles and metadata for repositories
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  • Taking application profiles to the people!

    Posted on August 6th, 2009 Talat Chaudhri No comments

    We’ve recently started trying out various methodologies for testing whether the different bits of application profiles work for the people trying to use those resources. The main thing to remember is that the approach must not be too technical: anybody ought to be able to understand what the metadata terms and the relationships between digital objects on the web are trying to achieve. This is hands-on metadata for real people!

    So we’ve been to various meetings lately. The first one is perhaps the least relevant from most people’s point of view, the Metadata Registries Meeting at the Novotel Centre, York, 23-24 July 2009. We were seeking feedback and discussion of our methodology, as well as talking about a few technical possibilities, which was a useful thing to do. You may ask, what are registries? Well they aren’t the subject of this blog, but in brief they are places that allow people to share their metadata schemas, application profiles and so on, as well as to find tools to help them develop, build and maintain them over time. Remember that application profiles are living structures that should change as the metadata needs of your users in dealing with the resources that you provide change over time. We (UKOLN) operate a registry called IEMSR.

    So what did we do for the people?! Well, first of all we went to the Institutional Web Managers Workshop 2009 (IWMW), 28-30 July 2009 because we felt that they are people who are focussed on making services work for users. It may have been an advantage in some ways that they weren’t by and large repository-related people and could look on things from a fresh perspective. It’s always good to get a range of different approaches: after all, won’t the users come to a repository, VRE, VLE or other service with a whole range of points of view and things they want to do? You can see a slightly ad hoc and only mildly embarrassing interview with me, Talat Chaudhri of UKOLN, explaining in about 20 seconds of profound unreadiness over coffee what it is that application profiles (should) do. (Why on earth did the kind editor choose that particular first frame to stop the video?!) Not a bad attempt, given the lack of coffee, I hope you may agree.

    Talat Chaudhri from iwmw on Vimeo.

    What we did was to get people to think about resources, and reasons why users would want to be looking at them. We played with post-it notes (also called stick-it notes elsewhere?) that had metadata terms written on them, and arranged them in logical groups that would help a person who was trying to perform focussed searches for resources. Any resource type will do: for instance, we tested it out before the session on “beach life: what you might find on a beach and what you might want to know about it”. It doesn’t even have to be sensible! In real life application profiles, however, you obviously need to think of the whole range of things that people will want to do with your resource. The best way: ask them! Don’t engineer things that people won’t want to use. The extra complexity creates the very real danger of making your structures difficult to search, which will put off the very users that are supposed to be using the service.

    This method is called card sorting, and is quite well known. It does have some limitations, but we have already shown its usefulness in focussing attention on what users need to do. One limitation, for instance, is that it’s rather hard not to prejudice the process from the beginning. If you ask the participants to think of the scenarios that users might search for resources first, then participants will come with pre-ordained ideas that will tend to undermine the fresh analysis of user requirements that we are looking for. On the other hand, if you don’t let them know until they have already thought of the terms that they need to describe the resource, on the first try they will tend to organise them in ways that don’t work with the scenarios. Let us remember, though, that this is just the first iteration of a development cycle for metadata solutions. You need to take every new version back to the users and check that it does what they need it to.

    A second limitation is that paper prototyping can’t produce the complex cross-links that you’d find in a real database. A third one is that it doesn’t begin to touch the importance of interface design to usability testing of metadata terms and structures. You may (or may not) need a complex data structure. However, your user should only see what they need to see in order to accomplish what they want. Anything else will actually hinder their use of the service, be it a web page or a repository deposit interface. That complexity can be generated behind the scenes by software, so that users are asked understandable, intuitive and above all useful questions that facilitate their end user experience. We’re also working on these areas.

    We then went to the Repositories Fringe 2009 in Edinburgh, 30-31 July 2009. (You will see from the above dates that this was a bit of a marathon!) The session was broadcast live on the Web, and I hope that the recording will be made available before long. I will add a link here if/when that happens. Having learnt a little from the above session, we did more of the same. We learnt a lot about how to get user requirements, and even more about how not to do it!

    We were asked if we were running a focus group. If people want application profiles like SWAP, IAP, GAP, TBMAP and so on to be implemented, we will certainly have to consult focus groups, but we will tell people when that is what we’re doing. First, however, we are trying to raise discussion about how we can analyse user requirements on an ongoing basis and transmit that hard evidence to developers, so that will have a reason to go to the trouble of incorporating it into their software releases. At present, we can’t show them sufficient evidence that these APs do what they are intended for, which is why repository software developers in particular have been understandably agnostic about APs. But the other thing that is crucial is to engage service providers and users. Why do they want to come? If they don’t get something out of the event that will improve their service or their knowledge, preferably both, they won’t come. This was as much an outreach and training event as a focus group.

    We’re hoping that this is a good start towards an iterative, user-driven method for analysing existing APs for various purposes, as well as for designing new APs from scratch. We’re confident that it’s going well at the moment and that we are beginning to get answers. But the task of making your metadata fit the service that you provide is ongoing, because services also change over time. It’s best not to be too prescriptive, as different institutional or web services take different approaches to achieving the same things. We are aiming at a flexible, iterative, toolkit approach that works for as many people as possible, and offers a range of tools to implement relevant parts of an overall solution that work for the services and users concerned.

    Lastly, the fact that we are reviewing APs should not be taken as a criticism of the ones that we have, even if deficiencies are found that need to be rectified, or new approaches taken. The work that was done in creating them has laid the groundwork for this new activity, which is aimed precisely at making the results of that work more useful in the community of web services that they were intended for. Change should be welcomed because needs and requirements change, along with our understanding of how best to analyse them.

  • JISC Repositories and Preservation Programme Meeting, 6-7 May 2009

    Posted on May 8th, 2009 Talat Chaudhri 1 comment

    Application profiles received considerable attention at the two-day Repositories and Preservation Programme Meeting held by JISC at the Aston Business School, Birmingham.

    Workshop: Application Profiles in Practice, 6 May 2009

    This was an event in two parts: firstly, an introduction to the user testing methodology being developed by the AP Support project in collaboration with the IEMSR and the IE Demonstrator project; secondly, an iteration of the paper prototyping element of the user testing. On this occasion the audience was comprised largely of experts rather than an especially representative group of typical users – quite understandably, given the nature of the meeting. (While it is very helpful to engage repository managers in user testing, it is more difficult to involve entirely non-specialist users, so there is a need for further work in facilitating this.) The session proved to be a success in raising considerable interest in current developments in application profiles.

    It was always the intention to use this particular event as a platform for consulting colleagues in the repositories community about the usefulness of the approach. In this respect, the workshop was highly successful: attendees responded positively to the intention of engaging users in order to analyse and address the strengths and weaknesses of the various application profiles, raising some insightful questions and contributing to an animated debate. Rachel Bruce of JISC commended the workshop in her speech closing the Programme Meeting on the following day.

    “Working with the Repositories Community: WRAP Project” (Jenny Delasalle, Warwick University), 6 May 2009

    Jenny Delasalle referred to the difficulties faced in pioneering an implementation of SWAP in an institutional repository based on EPrints 3.0. Unlike in its successor EPrints 3.1, versioning was unsupported at the time, which to a great extent hampered the SWAP effort in WRAP at Warwick. She considered that in its present form, SWAP represents too complex a metadata model for adoption by the typical IR. But since there is not necessarily a need to employ all of the SWAP metadata terms (any more than one would necessarily need to employ all of the terms in DC Simple or Qualified DC), it must be presumed that the FRBR structure and the lack of automated means to populate fields with structural metadata represent a significant part of the problem. It would be useful to get a clarification from Jenny on this.

    That the feasibility of complex metadata schemas could be radically improved by the use of text mining to autopopulate metadata fields, thus requiring far less input and/or correction from the user, was raised later in the Forum in the discussion “How can text mining support repository tasks?”, convened by James Farnhill of JISC and led principally by Brian Rea of NaCTeM, University of Manchester. This would be of obvious and immediate relevance to the liklihood of SWAP being more widely implemented, whether in its present form or following the recommendations from the user testing effort.

    Repositories Roadmap Session (Rachel Heery, external consultant for JISC), 7 May 2009

    Rachel Heery gave a summary of her Digital Repositories Roadmap Review, revised from the original version by herself and Andy Powell in 2006.  Recommendation 11 referred to SWAP specifically, proposing a cut-down version without the FRBR entity-relationship model and a re-analysis of the sort undertaken in the current user testing programme; Recommendation 12 made an interesting reference to OAI-ORE in the context of SWAP.

    Recommendation 11: Explore deployment of a cut down version of SWAP, possibly at the copy level, retaining the cataloguing rules to ensure a consistent approach to linking to full text. Evaluate whether use of SWAP is consistent with a Web architecture approach to repositories.

    Recommendation 12: Explore use of OAI-ORE to enable applications to handle complex objects. Demonstrate how OAI-ORE facilitates the re-use of research outputs and research data. Clarify different roles of OAI-ORE and SWAP.


    There was considerable discussion of SWAP on Twitter among colleagues at Eduserv, UKOLN and elsewhere on both days of the meeting, focussing on both the structure and implementation of SWAP as it was originally intended, and in response to Rachel Heery’s recommendations. The need to solve the lack of implementation of the Dublin Core Application Profiles appears to have regained significant impetus from the interest in the series of user testing events planned by UKOLN. In particular, new impetus has been given to the SWAP implementation effort, in which expectations had previously subsided. Given Rachel Heery’s review, it is clear that SWAP may need to be considered once more as an ongoing project rather than a past product that failed to gain support, and one that may need substantial revision in future iterations. It is important to keep an open mind about the nature of those revisions, which should be conditioned by the results of the ongoing user testing effort.