Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wandering lonely as a cloud

This morning's first plenary talk was given by Sheila Anderson of King's College, London. The title of her talk 'wandering lonely as a cloud', inspired by Wordsworth's 'Daffodils' poem, referred both to the individualistic aspects of Humanities research and the potential promises of cloud computing infrastructures for supporting such work.

Sheila reminded us that research in the Humanities is often individualistic, even when people collaborate and that it is concerned with sources and close reading of source material. While the promise of 'seamless infrastructures' (the ISGC conference topic this year) may be relevant if it provides tools and services that work together nicely and without problems, Humanities researchers will want to pick-n-mix their functionality to support their specific uses. I would argue that rather than a comprehensive, seamless infrastructure, what we should look to support the development of support for the construction of virtual private infrastructures or virtual research environments that are assembled by researchers and configured to serve their specific purposes. Perhaps IaaS cloud infrastructures are better suited for this task as they do not have models of usage inscribed in them in the same way that grids have.

Sheila and colleagues are exploring the use of cloud computing in the Kindura project, which provides 'repository-focused' services for Humanities research across different institutions using a hybrid cloud. The attention they pay to the scholarly traditions in the Humanities is also visible in the work of the DARIAH project, one of the projects preparing the ESFRI infrastructures.

The use of cloud computing has the potential to support both the evolution of research practices and questions as well as to enable more disruptive, transformative developments. Arguably, e-Research requires both. I would argue that we have made the mistake in the past to emphasise the transformative potential of e-Research and the wonderful promises of grid computing, often disenfranchising researchers who were not interested in the technologies or wider visions but want to get better support for the work they do. Let's not make the same mistake by foregrounding the next technology - clouds - that we(!) are excited about. As Sheila pointed out, data/information is cheap these days but attention is precious - let's make sure that through attention to researchers' concerns and practices we keep them interested.

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