Inaugural Web Observatories Workshop Takes Place in Southampton

Much like the printing press, the invention of the world wide web has afforded us unprecedented opportunities for spreading information. Not only do we now have the capacity to share rich data sets online, we also have vast amounts of data about our online activity. However, without a proper framework in place, it is difficult to take full advantage of this rich information resource. There are currently multiple barriers to using this resource effectively, including accessibility of datasets, lack of comprehensive and shareable metadata, dataset identification and searching, access control and privileges, and analytics.

The WUN Web Observatory project, led by Professor Dame Wendy Hall at the University of Southampton, aims to bridge this gap. It works by enabling the sharing of research datasets within and between universities and research labs to support interdisciplinary, inter-institutional research.

“At the moment, people are gathering all sorts of data about the web and about what’s happening on the web. A lot of it’s held in companies or held in research labs like universities. PhD students do projects and, when they finish, it all disappears and there is no way of linking that data across different projects, of sharing the analytical tools that have been built to analyse the data,” says Professor Dame Wendy Hall.

“In the same way that the physicists share data about the pictures they take of the stars in the heavens and the climate scientists share data about what’s happening to the world’s temperatures and sea levels, we’ve got to find a way of doing this for the web so we understand more about the digital planet that we’re building and how we could build for a better future.”

The project includes participants from thirteen of WUN’s member universities. Each participating university has a Web Observatory node that enables them to a) catalogue and share their resources b) discover and access resources in other WUN Web Observatory nodes and c) discover and access resources across the network of Web Observatories, which is deployed under the auspices of the Web Science Trust. As a result, members are able to discover, use and share public or private datasets and analytics from around the world.

To kickstart this initiative, WUN funded an inaugural workshop on 9-10 November at the University of Southampton. The goal of the workshop was to engage with members from across WUN in order to establish a network of Web Observatory nodes. The two-day event included an address from Professor Dame Wendy Hall, working groups, roundtable discussions, presentations, and a workshop dinner. Together, the group agreed on four research areas (health/governance, disaster management, online learning, young global citizens) and appointed a lead institution for each. They also discussed potential funding and future activities, such as summer schools and joint programmes.

Going forward, the group will continue to work toward developing methods for distributed analytics, security, and access control. Next year, they will begin collecting data and grouping datasets, and a preliminary report will be presented at the WUN Conference and AGM in Maastricht.

Read more about the WUN Web Observatory project