A Grey Eminence of a Standard

[Screenshot: graphs and numbers]
Examples for extra metadata: extended column descriptions on the web pages accompanying the ARI-Gaia TAP service.

Last friday, I’ve uploaded a first working draft of VODataService 1.2 to the IVOA documents repository. That’s the first major step in updating a standard, and it’s an invitation to everyone to have a look and comment.

Foof, you might say, what do I care? I’ve not even heard of that standard.

Well, but you’ve probably used it. VODataService is (among several other things) the standard that governs how a TAP service tells clients (TOPCAT, say) what tables it has and what’s inside of them. So, if you see in TOPCAT that there is a column named ang_error with a unit of deg, a UCD of stat.error;pos and the meaning “1 σ confidence radius of the position”, that most likely came in a document standardised by VODataService.

The question of what (TAP) services can tell clients about their table set is one major open point: Do we want additional metadata there? This article’s image, for inspiration, shows a screenshot of extended metadata Grégory delivers to browsers on his ARI-Gaia service; among this are minima, maxima, means, standard deviations, quartiles, and fill factors (i.e., how many of the columns are NULL). He even shows histograms of the values’ distributions and HEALPix maps showing how (the means of) the values vary on the sky. Another example of extended metadata could be footnotes as you will find them on many of my resources’ reference URLs (example; footnotes are, unsurprisingly, near the foot of that page).

We could define interoperable means to communicate information like this. The question is: does the added value justify the complication in implementation? This is where it would be great if you weighed in, in particular if you are a “mere” TAP user: Are there any such pieces of metadata you’ve always wanted to see in your TAP interfaces? Oh, and metadata of course can also be added to tables rather than columns. The current draft already lets services communicate the number of rows in each table – is there more “simple”, table-specific metadata of this sort?

VODataService furthermore deals with several other topics; for instance, the STC in the registry business I’ve blogged about in February is going to be standardised here (update on this: spectral coverage is no longer in wavelength but in energy). Other changes are rather more technical in nature, like several new resource types that will improve the discovery of tables and other such resources, or a careful adjustment of some features to keep them in line with TAP evolution.

But don’t let the technicalities scare you away – just have a peek, and if you have thoughts on any of the VODataService topics: I’m just a mail away.

DaCHS 1.2 is out

Today, I have released DaCHS 1.2 – somewhat belatedly perhaps, because I managed to break my collarbone, but here it is. If you’ve been following this blog, you already know about the headline news: the dachs start command, ADQL 2.1, and early support for STC in the registry.

If you’re not yet on DaCHS 1.1, please have a quick look at the corresponding release article. While the upgrade itself should work fine in one go even from older versions, the release notes of course apply cumulatively, and you may still have to do the dist-upgrade to 1.1.

As usual, the generic upgrading instructions are available in the operator’s guide (in short: do a dachs val ALL; apt update; apt upgrade). Since I’ve still encountered DaCHS installations with wrong sources.lists last April: Note again that our repository names have changed in August 2016 – we now have release and beta rather than Debian release names. So, make sure you have something like

deb http://vo.ari.uni-heidelberg.de/debian release main

in your /etc/apt/sources.list, not something containing “stable” or the like.

That said, here’s the commented changes for 1.2:

  • New dachs start command to produce structured templates for certain service types. See Horror Vacui Begone on this blog for the full story.
  • Support for ADQL 2.1 (actually, its current proposed recommendation), including almost all of the optional parts (see Speak out on ADQL 2.1 on this blog). While not strictly necessary, it’s a good idea to run dachs imp //adql after the upgrade; this will give you some nice new UDFs, in particular gavo_histogram.
  • New coverage element (with updaters) to build and declare the space-time-spectral coverage of a resource. It would be great if you could add coverage elements to your resources where it makes sense and re-publish them. This blog post tells you how to do it (you’ll have to scroll down a bit).
  • There is now odbcGrammar to feed an import from another database. Essentially, you put an ODBC connection string into a file, point your sources element there, and you’ll get one rawdict per tuple in a foreign database table. This might be a nice way to publish moderate-size non-postgres tables via DaCHS.
  • You can now declare associated datalink services for tables using the _associatedDatalinkSvc meta item. In particular, if you had a datalink property on SSAP services, you should migrate at some point. One advantage: Users will get the datalinks even when querying the tables through TAP. See “Integrating Datalink Services” in the reference documentation for the full story.
  • We now force matplotlib to read its configuration from /var/gavo/etc/matplotlibrc; to get a default, just run dachs init again. This is mainly to avoid uncontrolled imports of matplotlibrcs when DaCHS is run under a uid that does other things now and then.
  • DaCHS now supports VOSI 1.1; in particular, DaCHS now understands the detail hints and has per-table endpoints, so clients like TOPCAT could avoid reading the full table metadata in one go. Realistically, at least TOPCAT doesn’t yet, so this is perhaps less cool than it may sound.
  • The indices generated by the ssa mixins are now a bit more sensible considering typical query modes. You probably want to run dachs imp -I on the RDs for your ssap data collections when convenient. If you have larger spectral collections, chances are many queries will be a lot faster.
  • ssapCore no longer wantonly adds preview columns. If you have previews with spectra, you probably want to add <property name="previews">auto</property> to your ssapCores. If you don’t, the preview column will not be added to SSA responses (right now, few clients evaluate it, but that will hopefully change in the future).
  • You can now add a statisticsTarget property to columns; you will want this on largish tables with non-uniformly distributed values to aid the query planner; something like <property key=" statisticsTarget">10000</property> within the corresponding column element can go a long way to improve query planning (you need to run gavo imp -m on the RD after the change).
  • DaCHS’s log now by default does not contain IP addresses, user agents, and referrers any more, which should mostly keep you from processing personal data and thus from having to muck around with the EU GDPR. To get back the previous behaviour, set [web]logFormat in /etc/gavo.rc to combined.
  • I fixed some utypes for obscore 1.1. These utypes are useless, so there’s nothing you have to do. But then stilts taplint complains about them, and so you may want to run dachs imp -m //obscore.
  • As usual, there are many minor bug fixes and improvements (e.g., memmapping FITSes for cutout again, delimited table references in ADQL, new-style tutorial resource records, correct obscore standardId, much saner nD-arrays in VOTables).

Well – enjoy the release, and if something goes wrong with it, be sure to let us know, preferably on the DaCHS-suppport mailing list.