Difference between revisions of "Database Interop Hackathon"

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* Overview standards
* Overview standards
* Need to gather some information, important activity over  the next 2 weeks
* Need to gather some information, important activity over  the next 2 weeks
- Data providers?
** Data providers?
- Use cases to guide?
** Use cases to guide?
* Dave clemmens has a page developed with Karla
* Dave clemmens has a page developed with Karla
* Premeeting is taking place to prepare standards for the hackaton
* Premeeting is taking place to prepare standards for the hackaton

Revision as of 21:03, 20 February 2009

NESCent Hackathon on Evolutionary Database Interoperability


Even though there is a rich and meticulously curated variety of on-line databases of phylogenetic data, their holdings are only available in incompatible formats lacking explicit semantics, and programmable APIs for querying the data are often not provided. NESCent seeks to address the resulting obstacle to interoperability and data integration by sponsoring a hackathon that brings together data and metadata experts and developers from a number of data providers with the developers of the emerging NeXML and CDAO standards.


There is a large variety of phylogenetic data resources in the form of on-line databases, providing data ranging from character state matrices (e.g., MorphBank, Morphobank), molecular sequence alignments (e.g., BAliBASE, PANDIT), phylogenetic trees (e.g., TreeBASE), gene or protein trees (e.g., TreeFAM, PhylomeDB), species trees (e.g., Tree of Life), gene families (e.g., PhyloFacts, HOVERGEN), to species taxonomies (e.g., NCBI Taxonomy, ITIS), and to analytic metadata such as divergence times (e.g., TimeTree). There is no existing common or unifying exchange format in which these data resources are available, and each of the resources boast a variety of meticulously curated or computed metadata for their holdings that require expert knowledge and manual inspection to interpret. Furthermore, there is no common, predictable way for querying and obtaining the data, and in fact most of those resources don't provide any programmable on-line interface (API).

This situation presents a fundamental obstacle to integrating phylogenetic data and service providers into a network of interoperating services that consume and produce data in predictable, verifiable syntax and with explicit machine-interpretable semantics, key prerequisites to applying tools for resource discovery and for constructing or executing complex workflows. It also renders these resources resistant to large-scale data integration, for example for combining and cross-linking some of these resources with other data, such as genomic, phenotypic, or georeferenced specimen data. This is further exacerbated by the fact that existing commonly used standards for phylogenetic data such as NEXUS cannot fully represent the different data sources and their semantics in a consistent manner, further hindering efforts to overcome this situation because they depend on an exchange standard with sufficient syntactical and semantic expressivity.

Recently, the development of the NeXML data exchange format and the CDAO ontology for comparative and phylogenetic data and analysis have provided a window of opportunity to apply both of these emerging standards towards solving some of these obstacles, while at the same time validating their ability to satisfy real-world needs that previously used standards (such as NEXUS) have not. Doing so would benefit the data providers by making their data more broadly useful, end-users by having access to a wide variety of phylogenetic data in a common, predictable format, and ultimately tool developers by defining a uniform way for giving their users instant access to a large swath of data. Furthermore, the recently started development of PhyloWS provides a first attempt at a uniform specification for a programmable phylogenetic data provider API.

NESCent seeks to take advantage of this opportunity by sponsoring a hackathon that brings together data and metadata experts and developers from several phylogenetic data providers with the developers of NeXML and CDAO. In addition, developers and end-users of phylogenetic data visualization and database integration projects will build demonstration projects and ensure the utility of the effort for research applications.


Many of the ideas for this hackathon arose from, and are a continuation of, the activities of NESCent's Evolutionary Informatics Working Group. Specifically, NeXML, CDAO, and PhyloWS are products of the group, and the motivation for this hackathon is a distillation of the CarrotBase ideas and concepts, which essentially served as a whitepaper for this event.

Specific objectives

For a list of possible deliverables, see Database Interop Implementations. We are also collecting use-cases.

The following broad objectives have been identified. Participants of the hackathon will refine these and distill concrete work targets from them in advance of and at the event.

  1. Unify the data format using NeXML:
    • Define and implement a transformation path from the native data format of the participating data providers to NeXML.
    • Document mappings, gaps, and ambiguities, and resolve those at the event as much as possible, or lay out ways for future resolution.
  2. Unify the data semantics using CDAO
    • Define comprehensive mappings between the metadata of the participating data providers to CDAO terms.
    • Extend CDAO with (possibly provisionary?) terms as much as possible.
    • Identify and document procedure for other data providers with semantics not currently represented within CDAO.
  3. Unify programmable data provider API
    • Complete the PhyloWS specification for RESTful data access and querying.
    • Document NeXML and CDAO needs for specifying metadata queries through PhyloWS.
  4. Create demonstration projects that take advantage of the unified data formats and/or semantics.
    • Database that integrates all participating data providers.
    • PhyloWS implementation on top of an integrated database.
    • Interactive tool that visualizes and navigates across the breadth of data.

The hackathon concentrates on writing code. All code and documentation will be made available immediately and freely to the community under an open-source (OSI-approved) license.



In order to best prepare for the main event, the participating standards are holding a pre-meeting on Feb 20-22, also on-site at NESCent in Durham, NC.

Conference calls

Hackathon participants


* Brandon Chisham, NMSU, CDAO Project
* Jim Balhoff, NESCent, Phenoscape
* Enrico Pontelli, NMSU, CDAO Project
* Ryan Scherle, NESCent, DRYAD
* Rugter Vos, University of British Columbia, NEXML
* Hilmar Lapp, NESCent, Co-organizer, designer PhyloWS
* Arlin Stoltzfus, NIST, Co-organizer, CDAO project
* Jeet Sukumaran, University of Kansas, NEXUS
* Peter Midford, University of Kansas, Mesquite
* Karen Cranston, University of Arizona, Encyclopedia of Life
* Dam Donnelly, U. Pennsylvania, pPOD
* Sheldon McKay, modENCODE
* Mark Jensen, Fortinbras Research, clinical analysis of sequence data from pathogen
* Bill Piel, Yale, TreeBase, iPlant
* Lucie Chan, San Diego Supercomputing, MorphoBank
* Vivek Gopalan, NCBI,
WELCOME MESSAGE (Arlin Stoltzfus)
  • Notes will be sent out
  • Agenda has been sent out
INTRODUCTIONS (All Participants)
ROADMAP (Hilmar Lapp)
  • Kickoff teleconference,
  • Overview standards
  • Need to gather some information, important activity over the next 2 weeks
    • Data providers?
    • Use cases to guide?
  • Dave clemmens has a page developed with Karla
  • Premeeting is taking place to prepare standards for the hackaton

- More messages over weekend as the premeeting develops

  • 2 more telecons; next one does not need to be a replication, instead discuss more technical issues and gather info for use cases (same for third)
  • MORNING time for next one (for UK folks)

- No questions

  • 3 technologies (phyloWS, NEXML, CDAO); all are outcomes of the evoinfo working group
  • Working Group for 2 years, started to address interoperability issues;

started with brainstorming for ideas (e.g., integrated data resource); we settled on specific technologies to facilitate interop. One data standard, one ontology, one interface for web services. Hackaton is the last meeting of the working group. Thus, this is the time and place to put technology to the test.

  • NEXML: (Rutger Vos)

- New XML standard, inspired by the NEXUS format; lots of applications use it; many data resource also use it (as data input or as serialization format) - NEXUS has issues, dialects, incompatibilites; we want a new standard, formally developed and that can be validated. - There is a NEXML.org website. It contains the XML schema, some I/O libraries (java, python, javascript, c++ in still in progress); on the other hand, there does not seem to be a strong interest towards C++. - It sounds like a useful technology, more reliable exchange of data, we can use it for data exchange for web services; some advantages over previous standards. - QUESTIONS? + What is the current level of support? There are some libraries provided; Perl, included in

  			  BioPerl - thus PioPerl supports it;

Java is used by Mesquite; Phenoscape uses its own; Jeet is working on a library for Python.

  • CDAO (Arlin Stoltzfus)

- Ontology that addresses the application area of comparative data analysis; implemented in OWL - OWL offers good control and formal structuring for the ontology - CDAO formalizes knowledge/semantics; it is useful for interoperability, to resolve ambiguities using semantics; For example, the Sequence Ontology has been used with similar objectives in the case of sequence data. Different sequence databases use Gene Feature Format (GFF) but with focus on

                 syntax; this led to incompatible definitions of certain terms

(e.g., open reading frame, in some instances it is viewed as include a stop codon, in other instances it does not; the Sequence Ontology enabled to clarify this ambiguity by creating two separate concepts). - Similar benefits can be gained in phylogenetic analysis: for example, in the problem of tree reconciliation. There are many tools, each imposing different requirements on the input tree (e.g., completely resolved or not). These distinctions on the inputs are often semantical, not based on syntax. - A formal ontology allows also access to reasoners, that can be used for validation of concepts - Note, that formal ontologies are meant to be machine understandable, not necessarily to be used manually. - QUESTIONS? +Are there tools to generate it? Are there tools to formalize description of an analysis?

                 Yes, there are formalisms to formally describe a biomedical

analysis or protocol, and they can be instantiated using a domain specific ontology. This is the case of OBI or FUGO (as general ontologies for describing protocols) and BioMoby (as a domain specific ontology) +Comment on workflow languages: there are systems that support phylogenetic workflows; in Kepler there are mechanisms to introduce annotations (e.g., on the inputs and outputs) and these will be used to type check the workflow. But they are not widely used. +I am new to all these ontologies; how does one connect different ontologies together into the same application? That can be done, ontologies allow to import other ontologies. CDAO includes an external ontology for amino acids and enables

		  external ontology to describe different types of characters;
  • PhyloWS (Hilmar Lapp)

- It is the youngest of the three standards; one year old - Developed at the Biohackaton in Japan - Focused on web services - Obstacle: rich diversity of data resources (digital ones) accessible online, yet, designed for human consumers; the medatadata could be valuable but not machine accessible - Some people are forced to do complex task to extract knowledge (e.g., HTML screenscraping) - There is a lack of programmable interfaces, and this is an obstacle to interoperability - A programmable interface is aimed at Predictability and Interpretability, and these two aspects builds on the two previously proposed standards (NEXML and CDAO) - Predictability: how to access data holdings, search data holdings, query interfaces, how to access individual items and resources (e.g., one tree in TreeBase, one alignment in an Alignment database) and how are these data returned. NEXML provides a solution to some of these issues by offering a standard interchange format. - Interpretability: how do I use the data returned? What is the meaning? CDAO represents a solution to this aspect. - If all these online data resources implement a standard web interface, these tasks become easy, it is simple to write widgets to embed in other web pages or applications, or create large systems (e.g., in Kepler, Mesquite) that can pull data from resources and they know what to do with them. - QUESTIONS? + Is PhyloWS implemented? Or is it can be implemented but something is missing?

                   Yes and no. First of all, it is partially implemented, there is

a prototype for Tree of Life; you can, through Phylows and a REST interface to obtain ToL trees. However there are parts of the specifcation that need to be fleshed out (and we will work on this at the premeeting)

INVENTORY (Arlin Stoltzfus)
  • We would like to think about possibilities and prelude to data
  collection and capabilities collection
  • Putting together data standards and web services, we can connect data
   resources that are now disconnected.
   For example,  Treebase may want to pull in
   other data, if there are semantics mapping between schemas it becomes
   possible, possibly through web services, with data transmitted in NEXML.
   Or we can described web services to provide access to treefam data sets
   from EMBL. Or enable existing tools to access sophisticated data matrix
   viewers, like mx or nexplorer, just by producing data in some standard
   format. We can integrate resources; e.g., Rutger used ToL queries and
   then go to TimeTree to get dates for trees (this is an interactive user
   interface), and a service combines and  integrate them.
  • We need to think about this; we need an inventory of input and output
   supported by different data resources (represented by you, participant).
   We want to create a network, where nodes are data resources and links
   are shared data types. If you export a character matrix and someone
   imports a character matrix, there there is a potential link in the graph
   and an opportunity for interoperation. The link are possible, but it may
   be theoretical and not practical (there may be format compatibility issues,
   lack of a robust interface).
   We want to propose solution for this. Please help us to create this graph.
  • After the telecon we will create a form or a shared spreadsheet on googledocs,
   and we will summarize that in a graph. Your data will become a part of a
   network of data resources. You will get this after the telecon and we invite
   you to fill the required information.
  • Another thing we want to hear is about use cases or wish lists. We
   have a use case wiki and Dave Clemmens has done work on it.
   Please suggest use cases that would shape the hackaton to be more concrete.

  • I am new at this; is it the focus on trees? Or data repositories?
  Highlevel structure of tree? What is the granularity?
  The focus is on evolutionary data, more specifically phylogenetic data;
  it includes trees, taxonomies, species taxonomies, character stat matrixes,
  discrete or continuous characters, sequence alignments, maybe transition
  In the wider context, this is only part of the picture; metadata are also
  important and can be linked to nodes of the tree, ranging from gene
  functional data, gene locations, biodiversity data.
  The focus is on making phylogentic data available as standards in order
  for outside users to access these metadata.
  Are we going to worry about how to enable linking phylogenetic data
  to other data or vice versa? Is this too further away from the hackaton?
  Maybe some of these are down the road, but in they are in the  realm of
  workflows, and they are in the scope.
  • What will the event look like?
  There will be lots of room for creativity, not assignments, people get
  together and use resources according to their interest.
  Try to be focused on certain activities, more profitable to you and the
  people you group with.
  • I have not been there before: what is the typical day and how does it
  change over the period?
  The typical day will include programming. Working on a specific task
  worthwile (determined to be such by a group). People at the event makes
  tasks feasible. Self organizing and self emerging. We will try to have
  lots of speaking on the mailing list before the event, but this is only
  to coordinate and information gathering. We will not be telling to people
  what to do. Subgroups will emerge and assume charges. The first mornimg
  will be devoted to forming the groups.
  Some people will be development of documentation.
  We may have some bootcamps. We will try to sense which ones from the
   mailing list discussion.
  This is not  a workshop where people get up and talk and brainstorm. It
  is very different.
  Some of these goals will form over the next two weeks.
  You may want to start thinking who are the participatns you want to work
  Note that the wiki  is open to everyone to edit, just request account,
  you can then edit. Send email to help@nescent.org (you can get an account
  on evoinfo or hackaton wiki).
  There is also an online tutorial for using wikis. We will put the link



Participants will split into subgroups at the event. The composition and tasks of the subgroups will be guided by the overall objectives, but will otherwise emerge and be self-determined by the participants prior to and at the event.


  • On-site participation was arranged by invitation and by self-nomination through an Open Call for Participation, followed by review.
  • The list of on-site participants has been finalized as of mid-February.
  • To better enable remove participation and pre-hackathon interactions, we have created an IRC channel on Freenode, named #dbhack1. There are instructions for finding and using an IRC client and for connecting in the help pages.
    • Mibbit parameters screen.png
      Alternatively to a desktop client, you can use a web-client such as Mibbit, which requires no download or installation of software. For Mibbit, on the front page click 'Start chatting now', and then enter the connection parameters as in the screenshot (substituting your desired nickname for 'your_nick' and hit 'Go'. On the page that opens, click the #dbhack1 tab if it isn't in the front already.
  • To enable micro-blogging of the event and as a tool for aggregating content, we have created a Friendfeed room short-named dbhack1. If you have difficult joining the room let me know, and if you have a content stream we should add let me know. Being Friendfeed, the room also has an RSS feed, in case you want to add it to your favorite feed reader.
  • As listed under resources, we encourage you to use the tag dbhack1 on social tagging sites ( such as Connotea, CiteULike, Del.icio.us) to tag online resources or papers relevant to the event.


Organizing Committee: Hilmar Lapp, Katja Schulz, Arlin Stoltzfus, Todd Vision, Rutger Vos

Time & Venue: The hackathon is scheduled to take place from March 9 to 13, 2009 at NESCent in Durham, North Carolina.

Agenda: The agenda of the event will be posted here once developed by the participants.

Organizers' notes. (Note: these are for organizers only.)


  • Protein domain databases, like Interpro, Pfam/Rfam, Prosite and Prodom also have some kind of tree/taxonomic information. It might be worth inviting people from these projects? - Julie
  • Database Interop Implementations

Links & Resources

Past NESCent-sponsored hackathons:

Relevant reading:

You can tag online resources, such as citations, articles, or other URLs, using social tagging sites. Please use the dbhack1 tag.