August 29, 2007

C.U. Researcher Develops Info Sharing Application

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Correction appended. See below.
Fedora Commons, an open-source software application, hopes to revolutionize the way scholars, institutions, and libraries share information. With a recent grant of $4.9 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Sandy Payette, a founder and co-director of Fedora Commons and researcher for Cornell’s Computer Science Department, hopes to further build an online system that fosters open collaboration between software developers and web site designers that can be used as a template for storing and preserving different types of data.

Fedora, an acronym for Flexible Extensible Digital Object Repository Architecture, was created during the late 1990s as part of Payette’s research. From 2001 to 2007, Fedora was supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as an open-source repository system where institutions could store and preserve information.

With this grant from the Moore Foundation, Payette wants to expand Fedora to include open access publishing, eScience and eScholarship. Fedora is currently being used by libraries, museums and universities as a way to manage content-based systems.

According to Payette, what makes Fedora so revolutionary is the way people use it to share their work. “Fedora provides software developers a template to build a variety of application … [it] is not a content-driven website, rather it acts as the architectural framework for content-management systems,” she said.

According to Cameron Hall ’08, who designed the Ithaca Commons’ website interface over the summer, Fedora’s primary purpose is to connect two groups: web developers in charge of back-end software and user interface and web designers. “Our goal was to bridge these two communities together in order to create a system where developers could create software that organizes all of the various data from one source and link them together to create a more effective content-management system,” he said.

An internationally recognized project, Fedora is used by institutions across the country and world. Some of the larger projects which utilize Fedora as their primary framework for storing and linking data include the National Science Digital Library and the Public Library of Science’s PLoS ONE, which adopted Fedora to establish an open publishing application that allows anyone to peer-review science and medical documents.

“What is happening in the Fedora community is that people gather together around it and improve the various projects together as a group. People get more involved and collaborate with one another as opposed to buying an enterprise solution. At that point you’re depending on a monolithic software to make your company, but Fedora ensures you have access to more extensive knowledge,” said Carol Minton Morris, communications and media director of Fedora Commons.

“The idea is that this software is built by a community of stakeholders who have a personal investment in its ongoing evolution,” Payette said.

Several collaborators including the Chicago Historical Society, the Newberry Library and the University of Chicago Press used Fedora to create the Encyclopedia of Chicago, which contains over 1,500 text entries plus images. Additionally, the collaborators were able to connect all relevant data to a specific entry so that a person could feasibly see and select the various documents pertaining to her search query.

While the potential for this software is unlimited, Hall said it may be overwhelming for someone with a non-technology background.“For students, it will cut down the amount of time it takes them to find all of the various links in a content-based system that utilizes Fedora. It would be very beneficial implemented in a library system,” he said.

Payette also pointed out that students who use Fedora-backed systems will find a level of scholarship not ordinarily available on open-access sites like Wikipedia. Anyone can access both sites, but the fundamental difference between Wikipedia and Fedora is that Fedora is an open access software template for content-management while Wikipedia is an open access content web site.

“Even though Fedora is open source software, systems that utilize Fedora as its primary architecture are subject to a rigorous quality of publishing which insures the integrity of its databases,” Payette said.

Morris explained that it would be very easy for students to adopt Fedora for their own use. “Fedora can enable content management and preservation. If a student has a good idea on how to build a web service of some kind and wanted to use it, they could use it like anyone else. We hope more students get involved,” she said. ­­

Correction appended: “C.U. Researcher Develops Info Sharing Application” incorrectly states that Cameron Hall ’08 designed the Ithaca Commons’ website interface. Hall actually designed the Fedora Commons’s website interface. The Sun regrets this error.