What can IIPC do to advance tools development?

By Tom Cramer, Stanford University

The International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC) renewed its consortial agreement at the end of 2015. In the process, it affirmed its longstanding mission to work collaboratively to foster the implementation of solutions to collect, preserve and provide access to Internet content. To achieve this aim, the Consortium is committed to “facilitate the development of appropriate and interoperable, preferably Open Source, software and tools.”

As the IIPC sets its strategic direction for 2016 and beyond, Tools Development will feature as one of three main portfolios of activity (along with Member Engagement, and Partnerships & Outreach). At its General Assembly in Reykjavik, IIPC members held a series of break out meetings to discuss Tools Development. This blog post presents some of that discussion, and lays out the beginnings of a direction for IIPC, and perhaps the web archiving community at large, to pursue in order to build a richer toolscape.

The Current State of Tools Development within the IIPC

The IIPC has always emphasized tool development. Per its website, one of the main objectives “has been to develop a high-quality, easy-to-use open source tools for setting up a web archiving chain.” And the registry of software lists an impressive array tools for everything from acquisition and curation to storage and access. And coming from the 2016 General Assembly and Web Archiving conference, it’s clear that there is actually quite a lot of development going on among and beyond member institutions. Despite all this, the reality may be slightly less rosy than the multitude of listings for tools for web archiving might indicate…

  • Many are deprecated, or worse, abandoned
  • Much of the local development is kept local, and not accessible to others for reuse or enhancement
  • There is a high degree of redundancy among development efforts, due to lack of visibility, lack of understanding, or lack of an effective collaborative framework for code exchange or coordinated development
  • Many of the tools are not interoperable with each other due to differences in approach in policy, data models or workflows (sometimes intentional, many times not)
  • Many of the big tools which serve as mainstays for the community (e.g., Heritrix for crawling, Open Wayback for replay) are large, monolithic, complex pieces of software that have multiple forks and less-than-optimal documentation

Given all this, one wonders if IIPC members really believe that coordinated tool development is important; perhaps instead it’s better to let a thousand flowers bloom? The answer to this last question was, refreshingly, a resounding NO. When discussed among members at Reykjavik, support for tools development as a top priority was unanimous, and enthusiastic. The world of the Web and web archiving is vast, yet the number of participants relatively small; the more we can foster a rich (and interoperable) tool environment, the more everyone can benefit in any part of the web archiving chain. Many members in fact said they joined IIPC expressly because they sought a collaboratively defined and community-supported set of tools to support their institutional programs.

In the words of Daniel Gomes from the Portuguese Web Archive: of course tool development is a priority for IIPC; if we don’t develop these tools, who will?

A Brighter Future for Collaborative Tool Development

Several possibilities and principles presented themselves as ways to enhance the way the web archiving community pursues tool development in the future. Interestingly, many of these were more about how the community can work together rather than specific projects.  The main principles were:

  • Interoperability | modularity | APIs are key. The web archiving community needs a bigger suite of smaller, simpler tools that connect together. This promotes reuse of tools, as well as ease of maintenance; allows for institutions to converge on common flows but differentiate where it matters; enables smaller development projects which are more likely to be successful; and provides on ramps for new developers and institutions to take up (and add back to) code. Developing a consensus set of APIs for the web archiving chain is a clear priority and prerequisite here.
  • Design and development needs to be driven by use cases. Many times, the biggest stumbling block to effective collaboration is differing goals or assumptions. Much of the lack of interoperability comes from differences in institutional models and workflows that makes it difficult for code or data to connect with other systems. Doing the analysis work upfront to clarify not just what a tool might be doing but why, can bring institutional models and developers onto the same page, and facilitate collaborative development.
  • We need collaborative platforms & social engineering for the web archiving technical community. It’s clear from events like the IIPC Web Archiving Conference and reports such as Helen Hockx-Yu’s of the Internet Archive that a lot of uncoordinated and largely invisible development is happening locally at institutions. Why? Not because people don’t want to collaborate, but because it’s less expensive and more expedient. IIPC and its members need to reduce the friction of exchanging information and code to the point that, as Barbara Sierman of the National Library of the Netherlands said, “collaboration becomes a habit.” Or as Ian Milligan of the University of Waterloo put it, we need the right balance between “hacking” and “yacking”.
  • IIPC better development of tools both large and small. Collaboration on small tools development is a clear opportunity; innovation is happening at the edges and by working together individual programs can advance their end-to-end workflows in compelling new ways (social media, browser-based capture and new forms of visualization and analysis are all striking examples here). But it’s also clear that there is appetite and need for collaboration on the traditional “big” things that are beyond any single member’s capacity to engineer unilaterally (e.g., Heritrix, WayBack, full text search). As IIPC hasn’t been as successful as anyone might like in terms of directed, top-down development of larger projects, what can be done to carve these larger efforts up into smaller pieces that have a greater chance of success? How can IIPC take on the role of facilitator and matchmaker rather than director & do-er?

Next Steps

The stage is set for revisiting and revitalizing how IIPC works together to build high quality, use case-driven, interoperable tools. Over the next few months (and years!) we will begin translating these needs and strategies into concrete actions. What can we do? Several possibilities suggested themselves in Reykjavik.

  1. Convene web archiving “hack fests”. The web archiving technical community needs face time. As Andy Jackson of the British Library opined in Reykjavik, “How can we collaborate with each other if we don’t know who we are, or what we’re doing?” Face time fuels collaboration in a way that no amount of WebEx’ing or GitHub comments can. Let’s begin to engineer the social ties that will lead to stronger software ties. A couple of three-day unconferences per year would go a long way to accelerating collaboration and diffusion of local innovation.
  2. Convene meetings on key technical topics. It’s clear that IIPC members are beginning to tackle major efforts that would benefit from some early and intensive coordination: Heritrix & browser-based crawling, elaborations on WARC, next steps for Open Wayback, full text search and visualization, use of proxies for enhanced capture, dashboards and metrics for curators and crawl engineers. All of these are likely to see significant development (sometimes at as many as 4-5 different institutions) in the next year. Bringing implementers together early offers the promise of coordinated activity.
  3. Coordinate on API identification and specification. There is clear interest in specifying APIs and more modular interactions across the entire web archiving tool chain. IIPC holds a privileged place as a coordinating body across the sites and players interested in this work. IIPC should structure some way to track, communicate, and help systematize this work, leading to a consortium-based reference architecture (based on APIs rather than specific tools) for the web archiving tool chain.
  4. Use cases. Reykjavik saw a number of excellent presentations on user centered design and use case-driven development. This work should be captured and exposed to the web archiving community to let each participate learn from each other’s work, and to generate a consensus reference architecture based on demonstrated (not just theoretical) needs.

Note that all of these potential steps focus as much on how IIPC can work together as on any specific project, and they all seem to fall into the “small steps” category. In this they have the twin benefits of being both feasible accomplish in the next year, as well as having a good chance to succeed. And if they do succeed, they promise to lay the groundwork for more and larger efforts in the coming years.

What do you think IIPC can do in the next year to advance tools development? Post a comment in this blog or send an email.

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