What is an observatory and what is being observed? Whether you’re a Web Scientist studying the evolving sociotechnical web or a Social Scientist studying people through their digital interactions, the observatory is about facilitating the use and re-use of data about people’s interactions with the Web. There are useful analogies with other forms of observatory. An astronomical observatory is a shared facility which produces flows of data that are distributed and used by many astronomers, with established practices about data sharing and standards to facilitate this. Some observatories (like CERN) are also spaces where researchers are collocated.
We need to consider all observatory stakeholders. Researchers want to be able to discover observed datasets and to be able to reuse them, and then to be able to correlate with other data (i.e. discovery, reuse, linking). Data providers stand to benefit from the analysis of data. An observatory can be seen as a new “intermediary”, a kind of data commons, where providers can place data and others find data for analysis. But commons is perhaps the wrong word: business models and incentive structures are evolving e.g. we are already seeing some monetization of observed data.
To achieve this there are multiple levels of description required, and hence potential standards: how do we describe an observatory, a dataset and a data flow? This will include description of use policies. Since our ambition is to facilitate discovery and reuse, to this end analyses could also be shared; i.e. the community would benefit from the sharing of the methods of analysis as well as sharing the observed data and the results, because that way we exchange know-how and build new capacity as observers.
The Community Group will start by identifying existing observatories and hence current practice, and will then establish use cases in order to focus discussions. Hence we would like existing observatories to be represented, as well as the various stakeholders suggested above. At this stage it would be very useful if everyone could encourage participation in the group so that we can embark on this exercise in a well informed way, so please do mention the Community Group in your talks and interactions. We will shortly invite members to introduce themselves on the group web page and, as appropriate, summarise their observatories and observatory needs.
The Web Observatory Panel at WWW2012 today (part of the Web Science day) will doubtless bring further insights!