The VAO Community Day in Tucson

The Virtual Astronomical Observatory (VAO) held its latest community day in Tucson, AZ, on March 13, attended by nearly 50 members of the Tucson astronomical community. These community days are an important part of our professional outreach: we go on the road to places having big congregations of astronomers, demonstrate the VAO’s science services, seek feedback on them, and gather community advice on future services. These days began last year with Community Days at the Center for Astrophysics and in Pasadena, followed by a Special Session at the AAS meeting in Austin in January, on “Tools for Data Intensive Astronomy.” You can learn  more about existing science services and see video tutorials at the VAO Science Tools page.

If you are not familiar with the VAO, its goal is  “.. realizing global electronic integration of astronomy data, tools, and services for use by individuals around the world. This new environment of interoperability will facilitate astronomy research with a speed, efficiency, and effectiveness not previously possible, and it will be available to all researchers, independent of their affiliation or access to observing facilities.” The project emphasizes services that respond to the rapidly growing scale of modern astronomy data sets.

The Tucson meeting had a different format then the others. We started off, as we had previously,  by giving demonstrations of the Spectral Energy Distribution Builder, Iris;  the Time Series service, which finds time-series data sets in various archives and ships them off to a periodogram till that analyzes them for periodic signals; and advanced prototype tools for faceted browsing and linking data to the literature.

After that we tried something new: we asked to attendees to use their laptops to work through two scripts that demonstrated the VAO science services: one used the catalog-cross cross match engine to discover new brown dwarf candidates, and the other used the data-discovery engine to find and aggregate multi-wavelength data on particular objects.

We were particularly interested in seeing how the hands-on sessions worked – they were good proxies for how astronomers would use VAO services in practice. And it turned out to be illuminating. Some of our services require recent versions of browsers, but some attendees had not updated their browsers in a while and could not use the services until they did. While no-one had trouble loading the Topcat visualizer for examining the cross-match output, a number of attendees found Topcat hard to use because the rich set of functions it offers is hard to navigate. More interaction between the VAO staff and the attendees would have helped people work more efficiently – we tended to wait and see who was in difficulty a problem and then help. Some of the difficulties involved lack of clarity in the scripts, and we received a lot of  suggestions for improving them.

Overall, though, the hands-on sessions were successful and we learned a lot to help us do a better job the next time. The next Community Day has yet to be scheduled, but we plan to hold two or three more in 2012.

Disclosure: I am the Program Manager for the VAO.

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