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Enhancing Research Infrastructures with VRE4EIC components: the EPOS success story

(This article was originally written for VRE4EIC Newsletter. Follow this link to the original source).

 

The European Plate Observing System (EPOS) highlights how its research infrastructure has become more efficient and user friendly by utilizing technology developed in the frame of the EU H2020 VRE4EIC project.

In the last decades quite an amount of tools, technologies and software has been developed to support and improve research throughout the entire data lifecycle[1]. This includes software, modeling tools, and even code that can be used and re-used by researchers around the world. However, more and more emphasis has been given to the structural components that enable a Research Infrastructure[2] to be sustainable, robust and, even most importantly, compliant to the FAIR principles[3]. Such principles prescribe–in order to enable reproducible science–that data need to be findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. It is usually up to research infrastructure designers, developers and managers to find the best architecture and technologies to enable FAIR to become reality in their scientific domain. However, looking transversally at science domains, it is clear that there is a number of challenges common to several communities, as evidenced by the common requirements elicitation and analysis of existing technical assets carried out both in the VRE4EIC and ENVRIplus project[4].

In this framework, VRE4EIC is promoting the adoption of common, standard technical solutions in order to facilitate  Research Infrastructures in facing shared challenges and thus complying with FAIR principles.

This is the case of the European Plate Observing System (EPOS), a Distributed Research Infrastructure long-term plan to facilitate integrated use of data, data products, and facilities from distributed research infrastructures for solid Earth science in Europe.

In order to enable accessibility (the “A” of FAIR), the EPOS central hub, that provides access to a wealth of different types of data and services from communities, had to implement appropriate Authorization mechanisms. Such mechanisms are usually referred to as “AAAI”, which stands for Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting Infrastructure. Instead of creating such an infrastructure “from scratch”, EPOS took advantage of the existing VRE4EIC “AAAI Service”[5] building block. This component provides a “plug-and-play” solution for the authentication of users, and in addition it integrates different authentication mechanisms from various AAI providers (e.g. EDUGAIN, Facebook, Google and others) in one single system. Due to its integrability into service-based architecture, it can be easily plugged into micro-services-oriented architectures[6], such as the one of EPOS.

Figure 1: Example of integration of VRE4EIC Authentication services (AAAI) into EPOS central hub Graphic User Interface (GUI). The login box is rendered on the EPOS GUI, but actually managed and ran by VRE4EIC Authentication service building block. Such component is part of the VRE4EIC prototype and runs on VRE4EIC servers made available by project partners (in this case CNR ISTI – Pisa).

 

The EPOS User Interface is presented in Figure 1. It enables the discovery and search of datasets in the solid Earth domain, which includes several communities such as Seismology, GPS, satellite data, volcanic observatories and others. An authentication widget is also available for access to specific dataset. The authentication in this case is managed by the VRE4EIC AAAI service component, that is simply “plugged-in” into EPOS main system.

Starting from this first pilot, EPOS has also benefitted from VRE4EIC studies and developments in other fields. For instance for the workflow management and the metadata system architecture (both projects use the CERIF[7] model).

The EPOS use case has several important implications. The first one is that this pilot has demonstrated the suitability of the strategy adopted by VRE4EIC for supporting and enhancing e-Research Infrastructures, in particular with respect to the AAAI service.

The second one, related to research infrastructure sustainability, is that it saved efforts in integrating authentication services on EPOS, with all related technical and security issues, not to counting the development efforts that were optimized by adopting an EU-funded solution.

Third, on the user side, it allows end users to access through existing credentials from Facebook, eduGAIN, and other Identity Providers, to log in easily to EPOS or any other Research Infrastructure enhanced by VRE4EIC Authentication service.

Now, a future-oriented exercise is due: imagine that many other research infrastructures would use such shared solutions produced by VRE4EIC. How much development and sustainability efforts would they save by integrating in an easy way metadata catalogue services, AAAI services, and other common solutions?

The answer is not trivial, also because other players are available on the EU landscape. However, the expertise brought in by a pool of scientist and engineers in VRE4EIC, strongly connected with the communities, and with skills in the integration of several research infrastructures in various domains, is doubtless precious and capable of optimizing the technical dimension and sustainability, as demonstrated by the EPOS pilot.

 

[1] For an overview of the Data Lifecycle see https://www.dataone.org/data-life-cycle

[2] Definition of Research Infrastructure by EU funding body https://ec.europa.eu/research/infrastructures/index.cfm?pg=about

[3] M. D. Wilkinson et al., “The FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship,” Sci. Data, vol. 3, p. 160018, 2016.

[4] “ENVRIplus is a Horizon 2020 project bringing together Environmental and Earth System Research Infrastructures, projects and networks together with technical specialist partners to create a more coherent, interdisciplinary and interoperable cluster of Environmental Research Infrastructures across Europe”. “Theme 2” deliverables report an overview of common elements and requirements in the various Environmental Research Infrastructures http://www.envriplus.eu/deliverables/

[5] More information about the VRE4IEC AAAI building block can be found here https://www.vre4eic.eu/images/Public_deliverables/D3.3_Building_Blocks.pdf

[6] A extensive compendium about Microservices architecture and techniques can be found in S. Newman, Building Microservices. O’Reilly Media…

[7] CERIF stands for Common European Research Information Format, see https://www.eurocris.org/cerif/main-features-cerif and https://www.eurocris.org/eurocris_archive/cerifsupport.org/cerif-in-brief/index.html

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Communication and Dissemination for European Projects (#2)

In  a previous post we introduced the importance of communication within the context of European funded Projects, and we defined three different modules to establish an efficient communication:

A) Internal Communication Tools
B) Communication Activities
C) Website

After describing the list of tools for internal communication, we will now deal with the Communication Activities and the website.

Why do we need Communication activities?

They are the core of internal (among project members) and external (external stakeholders) communication, and define how the various actors of the projects (project members, scientists, external stakeholders, funding agencies, common citizens etc.) communicate. They are usually explained all through the Communication Plan.

An approach which seems to be quite effective, in order to define the communication activities in the Communication Plan, is the following:

  1. Define general Objectives
  2. For each objective, define a clear, pragmatic and concrete sub-objective
  3. For each sub-objective, describe
    1. Who are the actors involved
    2. Who are the means of communication
  4. Define Key Performance Indicators (KPI) to evaluate the effectiveness of the action

I’ll make it more clear by means of an example: let’s assume that your project includes the participation of Small Medium Enterprises (SME). We have then the following schema:

  • Objective: involvement of SME;
  • Sub-Objective1: Participation of SME to project events;
    • Actors: Project Management Office (PMO), SME representative
    • Action1: PMO invites SME to project’s events by means of email invitations
      • KPI for Action1: number of invites / number of participants ratio
    • Action2:  Ask to SME to contribute with talks/ presentations to the event/conference
      • KPI for Action2: number of talks by SME representatives
  • Sub-Objective2: Keep SME updated about project’s news;
    • Action1: send monthly newsletter to SME by email
      • KPI for Action1: number of clicked links from the email
    • Action2:  ….
      • KPI for Action2: ….
  • Sub-Objective3: produce documentation about common work;
    • Action1: …
      • KPI for Action1

Well… got the idea?

Of course a list of tools (means of communications) should be also provided, at it may include

  • Newsletters
  • Social network activities
  • Videos
  • Interviews

It is not simple to enumerate them. Their necessity and usability really depends on the type of projects and its goals. In addition, it is really an activity for which some expertise in communication is needed. With respect to this, the best suggestion would be to get in touch with some serious communication company, used to work in EU projects.

The website: a must

The purpose of the website is usually to disseminate project’s relevant information to all stakeholders. The website shouldn’t contain reserved material but only publicly accessible material (e.g. documents and presentations external or internal stakeholders, images for press review).

And socials?
The website should include also news and interactions from social networks. However the website should be simple enough to allow almost anyone with basic IT skill to add pages, articles, images.

Which technology?

A simple CMS (content Management System) software based on standard LAMP technologies (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) is the most reasonable solution: many popular solutions exist such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal etc. would be preferable. To be web 2.0 compliant the layout template could be based on a CSS3 framework such as Bootstrap, Foundation, Sass as such infrastructures provide cross-browser compatibility on desktop and mobile devices.

Users & editors

We plan to have up to five content editors (i.e. CMS users), their access credentials will give them editing capabilities on various subsections of the Web site; they must be able to:

  • create new pages and update existing content pages.
  • rename existing pages or move them around the site hierarchy structure, site navigation should auto-update accordingly
  • set publish/unpublish dates for documents
  • upload set of images and add a public viewing gallery for them into any page
  • edit content boxes appearing in splash / summary pages, or in side columns

The editors will need to be fully formed on all the tools available in the CMS; probably via a initial dedicated hands-on seminar ( e.g. three or four 2-hours sessions).

..and some extras….

The management of the Website will also need prompt CMS software update, performance and security monitoring, full management of the SQL database, we might need extra Database tables and CMS tools (PHP snippets based on the CMS API), traffic stats monitoring (Google Analytics).

That’s all folks

Now we get to the conclusion. I’ll tell you a secret: contents of those two posts were actually taken out from a work I did in order to select a company to support our project i communication activities. And it seems to work.

Of course, these are just some ideas which need some (much) refinement.

However having seen that – unfortunately – the communication activities in EU projects are sometimes decoupled by the the wealth of knowledge about communication (widely used – on the contrary – for commercial purposes), those two posts want to be a startup guide to dive into the matter of communication in EU projects.

Comments and feedbacks are more than welcome.
And please share your experience.

EU aims at competition, it’s true, but sharing information about those “hidden challenges” will help everybody to design and run better projects for a better science.

 

HEADER IMAGE Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

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Communication and Dissemination for European Projects (#1)

Communication is often considered a structural pillar in several domains.
Of course commercial domain makes wide use of any kind of communication “tool” (e.g. social networks, communication techniques as “story telling”, or the old well-known commercial ads) in order to engage users and – in the end – increase profit.
However the importance of Communication has been recognised as relevant also in the field of science, and in particular of the Science Projects funded by the European Community.

Documents like Communicating EU research and innovation: guidance for project participants demonstrate how serious this issue has been taken by the EU.

In addition, almost all EU projects I’ve come across, include a Communication Working Package.

This issue – or better this challenge – needs at least two ingredients to be properly tackled:

  1. a good Communication Plan
  2. the know how and technical tools which are, in the end, the substance of the communication itself. They include all the technical tools (e.g. teleconferencing tools) and best practices which must be used to carry on an effective communication based on the communication plan.

In this post I’ll deal with the second aspect, reporting the experience we had in the context of the EPOS european project and providing some thoughts, guidelines and – most importantly – our experience about the creation of  all the tools we needed to set up an efficient communication.

We called it Communication & Management Toolkit. 

 

HEADER IMAGE Di Sceptre (Opera propria) [Public domain], attraverso Wikimedia Commons

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