The Paris Northern Spring Interop

Image: Interior of a large tent
The plenaries of the Paris interop take place in a tent, because Paris Observatory doesn’t have a room large enough given the number of participants. Well, this certainly gets the prize of the most original venue of all the Interops I’ve been at.

About every six month, the people making the standards for the Virtual Observatory meet to sort out the next things we need to tackle, to show off what we’ve done, and to meet each other in person, which sometimes is what it takes to take some excessive heat out of a debate or two. We’ve talked about Interops before. And now it’s time for this (northern) spring’s Interop, which is taking place in Paris (Program).

This time I thought I’d see if there’s any chance I can copy the pattern I’m enjoying at Skyweek now and then: A live blog, where I’ll extend the post as I go. If that’s a plan that can fly remains to be seen, as I’ll give seven talks until Friday, and there’s a plethora of side meetings and other things requiring my attention.

Anyway, the first agenda item is a meeting of the TCG, the Technical Coordination Group, which is made up of the chairs and vice-chairs of the IVOA’s working groups (I’m in there as the vice chair of the semantics WG). We’ll review how the standards under review progress, sanction (or perhaps defer) errata, and generally look at issues of general VO interest.

Update (2019-05-12, 10:50): Oh dang, my VOResource 1.1 Erratum 1 hasn’t quite made it. You see, it’s about authentication, i.e., restricting service access, which, in a federated, interoperating system is trickier than you would think, and quite a few discussions on that will happen during this Interop. So, the TCG has just decided to only consider it passed if nothing happens this week that would kill it. To give you an idea of other things we’ve talked about: Obscore 1.1 Erratum 1 and SODA 1.0 Erratum 1 both try to fix problems with UCD annoation (i.e., a rough idea what it is) not directly related to the standards themselves but intended to help when service results are consumed outside of the standard context, and RegTAP 1.0 Erratum 1 fixes an example in the standard regulating registry discovery that didn’t properly take into account my old nemesis, case-insensitivity of IVOA identifiers. So, yay!, at least one of my Errata made the TCG review.

Update (2019-05-12, 12:15): Yay! After some years of back and forth, the TCG has finally endorsed my Discovering Data Collections note. This is another example of the class of text you don’t really notice. It’s supposed to let you, for instance, type in a table name into TOPCAT and then figure out at which TAP service to query it. You say: I can already do that! I say: Yeah, but only because I’m running a non-standard service, which I’d like to cease at some point.

Update (2019-05-12, 15:55): The TCG meeting slowly draws to an end. This second half was, in particular, concerned with reports from Working and Interest Groups; this is, essentially, an interactive version of the roadmaps, where the various chairs say what they’d like to do in the six month following an Interop. The one from after College Park (VO insiders live by Interops, named by the towns they’re in) you could read at 2018 B Roadmap in the IVOA Wiki – but really, as of next Friday, you’d rather look at what’s going be cooked up here (which will be at 2019 A Roadmap).

Update (2019-05-12, 16:30) It’s now Exec, i.e., the governing body of the VO, consisting of the principal investigators (or, bosses), of the national VO projects (I’m just sitting in for my boss, really). This has, for instance, the final say on what gets to be a standard and what doesn’t. This is, of course, a bit more formal than the hands-on debates going on in the TCG, so I get to look around a bit in the meeting room. And what a meeting room they have here at Paris observatory. Behind me there’s a copy of Louis XIV’s most famous portrait (and for a reason: Louis XIV had the main part of the building we’re in built), along the walls around me are the portraits of the former directors of Paris observatory (among them names all mathematicians or astronomers know: Laplace, Delaunay, Lalande, the Cassinis, and so on), and above me, in the meeting room’s dome, there’s an allegoric image of a Venus transit that I can’t link here lest schools block this important outreach site. What a pity we’ll have to move into a tent when everyone else comes in tomorrow…

Update (2019-05-13, 9:11) The logistics speech is being given by Baptiste Cecconi, who’s just given the carbon footprint of this meeting – 155 tons of CO2 for travel alone, or 1.2 tons per person. That, as he points out, is about what would be sustainable per year. Well, they’re trying to make amends as far as possible. We’ll have vegetarian-only food today (good for me), and locally grown food as far as possible. Also, the conference freebie is a reusable cup so people won’t produce endless amounts of waste plastic cups. I have to say I’m impressed.

Update (2019-05-13, 9:43): One important function of these meetings is that when software authors and users sit together, it’s much easier to fix things. And, first success for me this time around: The LAMOST services at the data center of the Czech academy of sciences do fast positional searches now; you’ll find them by looking for LAMOST in TOPCAT‘s SSAP window, in Aladin 10, in Splat, or really whereever clients let you do discovery of spectral services in the VO.

Update (2019-05-13, 10:59):Next up: “Charge to the Working Groups”. That’s when the various working group chairs give lightning talks on what’s going to happen in their sessions and try to pull as many people as they can. Meanwhile, in the coffee break, I’ve had the next little success: With the people involved, we’ve worked out a good way to fix a Registry problem briefly described by “two publishing registries claim the same authority” (it’s always nice to pretend I’m in Star Trek) – indeed, we’ll only need a single deletion at a single point. Given the potential fallout of such a problem, that’s very satisfying.

Update (2019-05-13, 14:07): While the IG/WG chairs presented their plans, the Ghost of Le Verrier (or was it just the wind?) occasionally haunted the tent, which gave off dreadful noises. And after the session, I quickly ported the build infrastructure for the future EPN-TAP specification (SVN for nerds; previously in this blog for the rest of you) to python 3. Le Verrier was quiet during that time, so I’m sure the guy who led the way to the discovery of Uranus approved.

Update (2019-05-13, 14:29): Mark SubbaRao from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium is giving a plenary talk (in other places, this might be called a “keynote”) on Planetaria and the VO. And he makes the point that there’s 150 million people visiting a plenetarium each year, which, he claims, is a kind of outreach opportunity that no other science has. I’d not bet on that last statement given all the natural history museums, exploratoria, maker faires and the like, but still: That the existence of planetaria says something about the relationship of the public with astronomy is an insight I just had.

Update (2019-05-13, 15:07): So, you think you just sit back and enjoy a colourful talk, and then suddenly there’s work in there. Specifially, there’s a standard called AVM designed to annotate astronomical images to show them in the right place on a planetarium dome (ok, FITS WCS can do that as well) and furnish it with other metadata useful in outreach and education. As Registry and Semantics enthusiast, I immediately clicked on the AVM link at the foot of and was greeted by something pretty close to a standard IVOA document header. Except it declares itself as an “IVOA draft”; such a document category doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, after around 10 years (there are conflicting date specs in the document) a document shouldn’t be a “draft” any more. If it’s survived that long and is still used, it deserves to be some sort of proper document, I think. So, I took the liberty of cold-contacting one of the authors. Let’s see where that goes.

Update (2019-05-13, 16:29): We’ve just learned about the standardisation process at IPDA (that’s a bit like the IVOA, just for planetary data), and interestingly, people are voting there on their standards – this is against the IVOA practice of requiring consensus. Our argument has always been that a standard only makes sense if all interested parties adopt it and thus have to at least not veto it. I wonder if these different approaches have to do with the different demographics: within the IPDA, there are far fewer players (space agencies, really) with much clearer imbalances (e.g., between NASA and the space agency of the UAE). Hm. I couldn’t say how these would impact our arguments for requiring consensus…

Update (2019-05-13, 17:11): Isn’t that nice? In the session of the solar system interest group, Eleonora Alei is just reporting on her merged catalog of explanets – which is nice in itself, but what’s pleasant for me is to learn she got to make this because of the skills she learned at the ASTERICS school in Strasbourg last November. You see, I was one of the tutors there!

Update (2019-05-14, 8:50): Next up is the first Registry session, with a talk on how to get the information on all our fine VO services into B2Find, a Registry-like thing for the Eurpean Open Science Cloud as its highlight. I’ll also present my findings on what we (as the VO) have gotten wrong when we used “capabilities” do describe things, and also progress on VODataService 1.2; this latter thing is, as far as users are concerned, mainly about finally enabling registry searches by space, time, and spectral coverage.

Update (2019-05-14, 14:11): So, I did run into overtime a bit with my talks, which mostly is a good sign in Interops, because it indicates there’s discussion, which again indicates interest in the topic at hand. The rest of the morning I spent trying to work out how we can map the VO Registry (i.e., the set of metadata records about our services) into b2find in a way that it’s actually useful. I guess we – that’s Claudia from b2find, Theresa as Registry chair, and me – made good progress on this, perhaps not the least because of the atmosphere of the meeting: In the sun in the beautiful garden of Paris observatory. And now: Data Models I.

Update (2019-05-14, 14:51): Whoops – Steve just mentions in his talk on the Planetary Data System that there’s ISO 14721, a reference model for an Open Archival Information System. Since I run such an archive, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’ve never heard of that standard. The question, of course, being if this has the same relationship to actually running an Archive as ISO 9001 has to “quality” (Scott Adams once famously said something to the effect of: if you’ve not worked with ISO 9001, you probably don’t know what it is. If you have worked with ISO 9001, you certainly don’t know what it is).

Update (2019-05-15, 9:30): I’ve already given my first talk today: TIMESYS and TOPOCENTER, on a quick way to deal with the problem of adjusting for light travel times when people have not reduced the times they give to one of the standard reference positions. There’s more things close to my heart in this session: MOCs in Space and Time, which might become relevant for the Registry [up-update: and, wow, of quick searches against planetary or asteroid orbits. Gasp]; you see, MOCs are rather compact representations of (so far only spatial) coverages, and the space MOCs are already in use for the Registry in the rr.stc_spatial table on the TAP service at The temporal part of STC-based discovery is just intervals at this point, which probably is good enough – but who knows? And I’m also curious about Dave’s thoughts on the registration of VOEvents, which takes up something I’ve reviewed ages ago and that went dormant then – which was somewhat of a pity, because there’s to this day no way to find active VOEvent streams.

Update (2019-05-15, 11:16): Now I’m in Education (Program), where I’ll talk about the tutorial I made for the Astroplate workshop I blogged about the other day. Hendrik is just reporting about the PyVO course I’ve wanted to properly publish for a long time. Pity I’ll probably miss Giulia’s Virtual Reality experiences because I’ll have to head over to DAL later…

Update (2019-05-15, 14:18): After another Exec session over lunch I ran over to a session somewhat flamboyantly called “TAP-fostered Authentication in the Server-Client scenario“. This is about enabling running access-controlled services, which I’m not really a fan of; but then I figure if people can use VO tools to access their proprietary data, chances are better that that data will eventually be usable from everyone’s VO tools. Data dumped behind custom-written web pages will much less likely be freed in the end, or so I believe. Anyway, I’m now in the game of figuring out how to do this, and I’m giving the (current) Registry perspective. The main part of the session, however, will be free discussion, a time-honored and valuable tradition at Interops.

Update (2019-05-16, 9:00): I’m now in the Theory session, where people deal with simulated data and such things (rather than, as you might guess, with the theory of publishing and/or processing data). The main reason I’m here is that theory was an early adopter of vocabularies. Due to my new(ish) role in the semantics WG, I’ll have to worry about this, because things changed a bit since they started (I’ll talk about that later today) – and also, some of their vocabularies – for instance, object types – are of general interest and shouldn’t probably be theory-only. Let’s see how far my charm goes…

Update (2019-05-16, 12:20): I was doing a bit of back-and-forth between a DAL session (in which, among other things, my colleague Jon gave a talk on a machine-readable grammar for ADQL and Dave tells us how ADQL 2.1 goes on (previously on this blog), and a code sprint the astropy folks have next to the conference, where we’ve been discussing pyVO’s future (remember pyVO? See the update for yesterday 11:16 if not).

Update (2019-05-16, 14:27): Again, in-session running: I gave a quick talk on how we’ll finally get to do data collection-based discovery (rather than service-based, as we do now; lecture notes) and then walked through the garden of Paris observatory to the semantics session, where I joined while people were still discussing the age-old problem of enumerating the observatories, space-probes, and instruments in the world (an endeavour that, very frankly, scares me a tiny bit because of its enormous size). After talks on the use of vocabularies in CAOM2 (Pat) and theory (Emeric), I’ll then do my first formal action in the semantics WG: I’ll disclose my plans for specifying how the IVOA should do vocabulary work in the future.

Update (2019-05-16, 17:56): So, the afternoon, between my talks in Registry II and Semantics, planning for the Semantics roadmap (this is something where WG chairs say what they’re planning until the next Interop; more on this, I guess, tomorrow), talking with the theory people about how their vocabularies will better integrate with the wider VO, and passing on pyVO to core astropy folks, was a bit too busy for live-blogging. I conclude with a “splinter” on the development of Datalink. This is pure discussion without a formal talk, which, frankly, often is the most useful format for things we do at Interops, and there’s almost 20 people here. In contrast to yesterday’s after-show splinter (which was on integration of the VO Registry with b2find), I’m just a participant here. Phewy.

Update (2019-05-17, 8:52): We’re going to start the last act of Interops, where the working group chairs report on the progress made during the interop. That, at the time of writing, only three WGs already have their slide on it shows that that’s always a bit of a real-time affair – understandibly, because the last bargains and agreements are being worked out as I write. This time around, though, there’s a variation to that theme: The astropy hackathon that ran in parallel to the Interop will also present its findings, and I particularly rejoice because they’re taking over pyVO development. That’s excellent news because Stefan, who’s curated pyVO for the last couple of years from Heidelberg, has moved on and so pyVO might have orphaned. That’s what I call a happy end.

Update (2019-05-17, 13:01): So, after reviews and a kind good-bye speech by the Exec chair Mark Allen – which included quite a bit well-deserved applause for the organisers of the meeting –, the official part is over. Of course, I still have a last side-meeting: planning for what we’re going to do within ESCAPE, a project linking astronomy with the European Open Science Cloud. But that’s not going to be more than an hour. Good-bye.

Small Telescopes, Large Surveys

[Image: Blink comparator and survey camera]
Plate technology at Bamberg observatory: a blink comparator with one plate mounted, and a survey camera that was once used at Boyden Station, an astronomer outpost in 60ies South Africa.

I’m currently at the workshop “Large surveys with small telescopes: past, present, and future” (or Astroplate III for short) in Bamberg, where people are discussing using and re-using the rich heritage of historical observations (hence the “plate” part) as well growing that heritage in the age of large CCDs, fast computers and large disks.

Using and re-using is of course what the Virtual Observatory is about, and we’ve been keeping fairly large plate collections in our data center for quite a while (among them the Archives of Landessternwarte Königstuhl or the Palomar-Leiden Trojan surveys, and there is the WFPDB TAP-accessibly). Therefore, people from GAVO Heidelberg have been to all past astroplate conferences.

For this one, I brought a brand-new tutorial on plate scans in the VO, which, I hope, also works as a general introduction to image discovery in the VO using SIAP, Datalink, and Obscore. If you’re doing image stuff now and then, please have a quick look at the thing – I am particularly grateful for hints on what to improve or perhaps particularly obvious use cases for the material discussed.

Such VO proselytising aside, the conference is discussing the wide variety of creative, low-cost data collectors out there as well as computer-aided re-analysis extracting new knowledge from decades-old data. If I had to choose a single come-to-think-of-it moment, it would be Norbert Zacharias’ observation that if you have a well-behaved object and you’d like to know where it was in 1900, it’s now more accurate to extrapolate Gaia astrometry to the epoch of observation than to measure it on the plate itself. Which is saying a lot about the amazing feat of engineering that Gaia is.

This is not, however, an argument for dumping the old data. Usually, it is exactly what is not so well-behaved (like those) that’s interesting – both in terms of astrometry and in terms of photometry (for which there’s a lot more unruly behaviour in the first place). To figure out how objects don’t behave well, and, for objects disguising as well-behaved only on time scales of the (say) Gaia mission, which these are, the key is “old” data. The freshness of which we’re discussing this week.

Register your stuff with purx!

TOPCAT screenshot
If you open the TAP dialog of TOPCAT, what you see is Registry content.

The VO Registry lets people find astronomical resources (which is jargon for “dataset, service, or stuff“). Currently, most of its users don’t even notice they’re using the Registry, as when TOPCAT just magically lists what TAP services are available (image above) – but there are also interfaces that let you directly interact with the registry, for instance GAVO’s WIRR service or ESAVO’s Registry Search.

Arguably, the usefulness of the Registry scales with its completeness. With sufficient completeness, the domain-specific, structured metadata will also make it interesting for generic discovery of astronomical data; in a quip, looking for UCDs in google will never work quite well – and without that, it’s hard to find things with queries like „radio fluxes of early-type stars”.

Either way: If you have a data set or a service dealing with astronomy, it’d be great if you could register it. To do this, so far you either had to set up a publishing registry, which is nontrivial even if you have a software that natively speaks a protocol called OAI-PMH (DaCHS does, but most other publishing suites don’t) or you could use one of two web interfaces to define your resource (notes for a talk on this I gave in 2016).

Neither of these options is really attractive if you publish only a few resources (so the overhead of running a publishing registry looks excessive) that change now and then (so using a web browser to update the resource records again and again is tedious). Therefore, GAVO has developed purx, the publishing registry proxy. We’ve officially announced it during the recent Southern Spring Interop in Santiago de Chile (Program), and the lecture notes for that talk are probably a good introduction to what this is about.

If you’re running VO services and have not registered them so far, you probably want to read both these notes and the service documentation. If, on the other hand, you just have a web-published directory of files or a browser-based service, you probably can skip even that. Just grab a sample record (use the one for a simple browser service in both cases) and adapt it to what’s fitting for your website. Then put the resulting file online somewhere and paste the URL of that location on purx’ enrollment service. In case you’re uncertain about some of the terms in the record, perhaps our crib sheet for metadata we ask our data providers for will be helpful.

There’s really no excuse any more for not being in the Registry!

GAVO at AG-Tagung 2017, Göttingen

[Image: Booth 2017]

For the 11th time, GAVO has a booth at a meeting of the venerable Astronomische Gesellschaft (AG). This year, we are in Göttingen, again offering advice to users and data providers at our booth (if you’re looking for us: We’re close to the entrance of Hörsaal 5).

And again we have a Puzzler, a little problem easily solved if you know your VO tech – and if you don’t we’ll gladly help you at our booth. We are also giving hints there, one being released at each coffee break on Tuesday and Wednesday (there are little posters with them, too, if you miss one). Of course, if you’re not in Göttingen, you’re still welcome to try your hand. You won’t get to win our great first prize then, the big Crab Nebula towel (it should be easy to spot on the image above).

If, on the other hand, you are in Göttingen, be sure to drop by our splinter meeting. Yours truly, for instance, will speak about EPN-TAP (remember And the Solar System, too right here? That’s what this is about).

Update 2017-09-20, 17:00 We’ve just given out the last hint for the puzzler, and so we can publish them all over on the puzzler archive: Hints for the 2017 puzzler. If you’re in Göttingen, you still have until tomorrow 16:00 to hand in a solution and perhaps win our nice and fuzzy Crab Nebula towel.

Update 2017-09-21, 17:00 And the winner is… again not from Marburg, which is beginning to become a running gag, and they’ve been unlucky for the last three years in a row. Anyway, here’s our proposed solution.

Asterics Tech Forum

The 3. Asterics DADI Tech Forum took place last week in Strasbourg – and many GAVO members made contributions as well.
This time, there were 3 slots for hackathon sessions, which were also used for discussions. We’ll mention two highlights of our contributions here.

We took the opportunity to push our Provenance Data Model efforts and used the hackathon slots for provenance discussions.
One topic was the links between the simulation data model and ProvenanceDM, and how to map from SimDM to ProvenanceDM classes. This mapping works quite well and will be included in the working draft for the data model. We also had an interesting talk by José Enrique Ruiz on his view on Provenance, workflows, and – very important – the “deployer” and “system” provenance for storing all the environment variables that may be needed to rerun the processing of some observational data. Michèle Sanguillon also presented for the first time her extension to the prov Python library (W3C) with extensions from our IVOA Provenance Data Model. We also had interested people from outside the usual provenance-interested people joining in, e.g. from the Astron project. More about our Provenance modelling efforts can be found at IVOA Provenance wiki page.

A world premiere (of sorts) was the first discussion of RegTAP 1.1. RegTAP is a search interface to the VO Registry; it is what TOPCAT or other VO clients uses when you type in keywords to locate services. A fairly direct web-basd interface is our WIRR registry interface. RegTAP will need a bit of a makeover since VOResource, the underlying metadata scheme is currently receiving one, allowing, in particular, for including DOIs and ORCIDs (John Does of this world, rejoice: People can finally uniquely find your data and not that of all the other J. Does) in Registry records and figuring out licenses on data. Licensing may not matter when you use data in a paper but it does matter if you want to redistribute data, e.g. for planetarium programs with catalog data or pretty pictures, or when re-mixing data.

But of course the GAVOistas happily joined the fray on the many other topics discussed, from a standard format for a time series to interoperable authentication, from datalink applications to figuring out if data coming into a program should be treated as a collection of spectra or rather an object catalog – the latter in the context of the upcoming version 10 of the VO’s premier image tool Aladin, which we saw (probably another premiere) demoed. We can already promise you an exciting update!

ADASS and InterOp participation

We were taking part at this year’s ADASS meeting (Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems) in Trieste and contributed a talk on the Provenance Data Model for the data model session.

The ADASS meeting was followed by the Northern Fall Interoperability Meeting of the IVOA, where new standards and protocols were being discussed.

It was a quite long week, but very inspiring!!