Digging a canal [Updated]

This is less a post about a particular solution than it is about future work I’m excited about.

Though many of the sessions I attended at DevCon were really useful, the one that got me bouncing in my seat was the session where Jared Ottley demoed the Dropbox synchronization capabilities he’s been working on.

Why did this get me going so much[1]? Simply because I see this work, along with the social publishing capabilities in Alfresco 4, being incredibly useful to our goal in using Alfresco to create what we’re calling the “Research Hub” on our campus and as one of the “workspaces” for Project Bamboo.


At a rather simplistic, abstract level, it’s possible to look at the scholarly process as the following sequence of steps:

  1. Discover and gather information.
  2. Collaborate with others to synthesize that information and turn it into something useful (a paper, a talk, a book, etc.).
  3. Make the product of the work available to others, for use when they’re in step #1.
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Around here, we commonly refer to the steps above as “Gather,” “Create,” and “Share.” Traditionally: First (gather), you go to the library and haul a stack of books back to your office. Next (create), you toil with your collaborators to write a new paper or book. Finally (share), you submit that work to a publisher. In fact, this workflow is one of the reasons that universities first came into being centuries ago. By bringing together the scholarly materials (the library) and many scholars (the colleagues and collaborators), universities enabled a much richer and more rapid development of ideas and knowledge.


In my—admittedly unoriginal—opinion, one of the coolest things about the rise of the internet is that this same workflow is now entirely possible without being in the same physical place. Essentially, if you have a decent internet connection, you can be a part of the “global university,” and it doesn’t matter if you’re in Alaska or Zimbabwe or someplace in between.

There are increasing numbers of online tools available that do really nice things in each of these steps in the academic workflow. For example:

  • Gather: The Project Bamboo Collections Interoperability team is doing some really interesting work to make it quite easy to get access to end-user-selected content from the inter-university HathiTrust repository; selected content from the Perseus Digital LIbrary; and 400-years of english texts from the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) in a very standards-compliant (using CMIS) way.
  • Create: Alfresco already does a more-than-decent job of providing an environment for people to create and collaborate around scholarly materials, and some of the upcoming enhancements such as the Google Docs integration will make this even better.
  • Share: Scholarly publishing services like the University of California’s eScholarship repository do a really nice job of making scholarly materials available. Digitial preservation repositories such as the California Digital Library’s Merritt Repository do a great job of making sure that these materials are around over the long term, for future generations of scholars.

The future

Where we still see a hole, though, is in tying this Gather-Create-Share workflow together [2], and that’s precisely why I’m so excited about what I’m seeing with Alfresco’s new integrations with Dropbox and social publishing. I think it’s pretty easy to imagine how the Dropbox synchronization capabilities might be adapted to make it really easy to import materials from places like Project Bamboo’s Collections Interoperability service. Similarly, you can see how the social publishing capabilities might be adapted to make it easy to share finished work via publishing and preservation repositories; as well as being useful in their own right to better publicize new work.

As I’m sure you can tell, I’m really eager to see where we can take this in the coming months and years. One of the cool parts is that because we, Alfresco, and Project Bamboo are all committed to open source, we’ll be able to—and will—share whatever we develop.

[1] – That is, excited to the point where I was a little bit of a blithering idiot when I talked to Paul Holmes-Higgin at the end of the session. Sorry about that, Paul!

[2] – Pulling this together is one of the major thrusts behind Project Bamboo’s Research Environments effort. We’re an active participant in this work. Alfresco, along with HUBzero, is one of the two prototype research environments that the Project Bamboo team is working with.

Update 11/16/2011: Added link to Jared Ottley’s presentation now that Alfresco has posted it.

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