After a few days back in Madrid, I have finally found some time to write about the eScience 2014 conference, which took place last week in Guarujá, Brasil. The conference lasted for 5 days (the first two days with workshops), and it got attendants from all over the world. It was especially good to see many young people who could attend thanks to the scholarships awarded by the conference, even when they were not presenting a paper. I found a bit unorthodox that the presenters couldn’t apply for these scholarships (I wanted to!), but I am glad to see this kind of giveaway. Conferences are expensive and I was able to have interesting discussions about my work thanks to this initiative. I think this is also a reflection of Jim Gray’s will: pushing science into the next generation.
We were placed in touristic resort in Guarujá, at the beach. This is what you could see when you got out of the hotel:
And the jungle was not far away either. After a 20 minute walk you were able to arrive at something like this…
…which is pretty amazing. However, the conference schedule was packed with interesting talks from 8:30 to 20:30 most of the days, and in general we were unable to do some sightseeing. In my opinion they could have reduced one workshop day and relax the schedule a little bit. Or at least remove the parallel sessions in the main conference. It always sucks to have to choose between two different interesting sessions. That said, I would like to congratulate everyone involved in the organization of the conference. They did an amazing job!
Another thing that surprised me is that I wasn’t expecting to see many Semantic Web people, since the ISWC Conference occurred at the same time in Italy, but I found quite a few. We are everywhere!
My talks at the conference were two, which summarized the results I achieved during my internship at the Information Sciences Institute earlier this year. First I presented a user survey quantifying the benefits of creating workflows and workflow fragments and then our approach to detect automatically common workflow fragments, tested in the LONI Pipeline (for more details I encourage you to follow the links to the presentations). The only thing that bothered me a bit was that my presentations were scheduled at strange hours. I had the last turn before the dinner for the first one, and then I was the first presenter the last day at 8:30 am for the second one. Here is a picture of the brave attendants who woke up early the last day, I really appreciated their effort :):
But let’s get back to the workshop, demos and conference. As I introduced above, the first 2 days included workshop talks, demos and tutorials. Here are my highlights:
Workshops and demos:
Microsoft is investing on scientific workflows!: I attended the Azure research training workshop, were Mateus Velloso introduced the Azure infrastructure for creating and setting up virtual machines, web services, webs and workflows. It is really impressive how easily you are able to create and run experiments with their infrastructure, although you are limited to their own library of software components (in this case, a machine learning library). If you want to add your own software, you have to expose it as a web service.
Impressive visualizations using Excel sheets at the Demofest! All the demos belonged to Microsoft (guess who was one of the main sponsors of the conference) although I have to admit that they looked pretty cool. I was impressed by two demos in particular, the Sanddance beta and the Worldwide Telescope. The former is used to load Excel files with large datasets to play with the data, select, filter and plot the resources by different facets. Easy to use and very fluid in the animations. The latter was similar to Google Maps, but you were able to load your excel dataset (more than 300K points at the same time) and show it on real time. For example, in the demo you could draw the itineraries of several whales in the sea at different points in time, and show their movement minute after minute.
New provenance use cases are always interesting. Dario Oliveira introduced their approach to extract biographic information from the Brazilian Historical Biographical Dictionary at the Digital Humanities Workshop. This included not only the life of the different persons collected as part of the dictionary, but also each reference that contributed to tell part of the story. Certainly a complex and interesting use case for provenance, which they are currently refining.
Paul Watson was awarded with the Jim Gray Award. In his keynote, he talked about the social exclusion and the effect of digital technologies. Having a lack of ability to log online may stop you from having access to many services, and ongoing work on helping people with accessibility problems (even through scientific workflows) was presented. Clouds play an important role too, as they have the potential for dealing with the fast growth of applications. However, the people who could benefit the most from the cloud often do not have the resources or skills to do so. He also described e-Science Central, a workflow system for easily creating workflows in your web browser, with provenance recording and exploring capabilities and the possibility to tune and improve the scalability of your workflows with the Azure infrastructure. The keynote ended by highlighting how important is to make things fun for the user (“gamification “ of evaluations, for example), and how important eScience is for computer science research: new challenges are continuously presented supported by real use cases in application domains with a lot of data behind.
I liked the three dreams for eScience of the “strategic importance of eScience” panel:
- Find and support the misfits, by addressing those people with needs in escience.
- Support cross domain overlap. Many communities base their work on the work made by other communities, although the collaboration rarely happens at the moment.
- Cross domain collaboration.
Conference general highlights:
Great discussion in the “Going native Panel”, chaired by Tony Hey, with experts from chemistry, scientific workflows and ornithology (talk about domain diversity). They analyzed the key elements of a successful collaboration, explaining how in their different projects they have a wide range of collaborators. It is crucial to have passionate people, who don’t lose the inertia after the grant from the project has been obtained. For example, one of the best databases for accessing chemicals descriptions on the UK came out from a personal project initiated by a minority. In general, people like to consume curated data, but very few are willing to contribute. In the end what people want is to have impact. Showing relevance and impact (or reputation, altmetrics, etc.) will grant additional collaborators. Finally, the issue of data interoperability between different communities was brought up for discussion. Data without methods is in many cases not very useful, which encourages part of the work I’ve been doing during the last years.
Awesome keynotes!! The one I liked the most was given by Noshir Contractor, who talked about “Grand Societal Challenges”. The keynote was basically about how to assemble a “dream team” of people for delivering a product/proposal, and all the analyses that had been done to determine which factors are the most influential. He started by talking about the Watson team, who built a machine capable of beating a human on TV, and continued by presenting the tendencies people have when selecting people for their own teams. He also presented a very interesting study of videogames as “leadership online labs”. In videogames very heterogeneous people meet, and they have to collaborate in groups in order to be successful. The takeaway conclusion was that diversity in a group can be very successful, but it is also very risky and often it ends in a failure. That is why people tend to collaborate with people they have already collaborated with when writing a proposal.
The keynote by Kathleen R. McKeown was also amazing. She presented a high level overview of the work in NLP developed in their group concerning summarization of news, journal articles, blog posts, and even novels! (which IMO has a lot of merit without going into the detail). She presented co-reference detection of events, temporal summarization, sub-event identification and analysis of conversations in literature, depending on the type of text being addressed. Semantics can make a difference!
New workflow systems: I think I haven’t seen an eScience conference without new workflow systems being presented 😀 In this case the focus was more on the efficient execution and distribution of the resources. Dispel4py and Tigres workflow systems were introduced for scientists working in Python.
Cross domain workflows and scientific gateways:
Antonella Galizia presented the DRIHM infrastructure to set up Hydro-Meteorological experiments in minutes. Impressive, as they had to integrate models for meteorology, hydrology, pluviology and hydraulic systems, while reusing existent OGC standards and developing a gateway for citizen scientists. A powerful approach, as they were able to do flooding predictions on in certain parts of Italy. According to Antonella, one of the biggest challenges on achieving their results was to create a common vocabulary which could be understood by all the scientists involved. Once again we come back to semantics…
Rosa Filgueira presented another gateway, but for vulcanologists and rock physicists. Scientists often have problems to share data among different disciplines, even if they belong to the same domain (geology in this case). This is because every lab often records their data in a different way.
Finally, Silvia Olabarriaga gave an interesting talk about workflow management in astrophysics, heliophysics and biomedicine, distinguishing the conceptual level (user in the science gateway), abstract level (scientific workflow) and concrete level (how the workflow is finally executed on an infrastructure), and how to capture provenance at these different granularities.
Other more specific work that I liked:
- A tool for understanding the copyright in science, presented by Richard Hoskings. A plethora of different licenses coexist in the Linked Open Data, and it is often difficult to understand how one can use the different resources exposed in the Web. This tool helps on guiding the user about the possible consequences of using a given resource or another in their applications. Very useful to detect any incompatibility on your application!
- An interesting workflow similarity approach by Johannes Starlinger, which improves the current state of the art by making efficient matching on workflows. Johannes said they would release a new search engine soon, so I look forward to analyzing their results. They have published a corpus of similar workflows here.
- Context of scientific experiments: Rudolf Mayer presented the work made on the Timbus project to capture the context of scientific workflows. This includes their dependencies, methods and data under a very fine granularity. Definitely related to Research Objects!
- An agile annotation of scientific texts to identify and link biomedical entities by Marcus Silva, with the particularity of being capable of loading very large ontologies to do the matching.
- Workflow ecosystems in Pegasus: Ewa Deelman presented a set of combinable tools for Pegasus able to archive, distribute simulate and re-compute efficiently workflows. All tested with a huge workflow in astronomy.
- Provenance is still playing an important role in the conference, with a whole session for related papers. PROV is being reused and extended in different domains, but I still have to see an interoperable use across different domains to show its full potential.
In summary, I think the conference has been a very positive experience and definitely worth the trip. It is very encouraging to see that collaborations among different communities are really happening thanks to the infrastructure being developed on eScience, although there are still many challenges to address. I think we will see more and more cross domain workflows and workflow ecosystems in the next years, and I hope to be able to contribute with my research.
I also got plenty of new references to add to the state of the art of my thesis, so I think that I also did a good job by talking to people and letting others know of my work. Unfortunately my return flight was delayed and I missed my connection back to Spain, converting my 14 hour flight home to almost 48 hours. Certainly the longest journey from any conference I have assisted to.