One task at the Zooniverse is to build a collection of science grade tools for our volunteers. Each volunteer gravitates towards the Zooniverse for a different reason. We have the folks who are mildly curious, we have those who have classified nearly every piece of data for a given project, and we have those in between. These tools are being built for the volunteers who explore more, those who go straight to the source – the science archives.
Imagine Topcat or Aladin working on the web – an environment where quick analysis is conducted. Part of the process is utilizing the vast information from archives scattered around the world. This is not an easy task, astronomical data is complex. These archives make a best effort to open their data to the community. Services like NED and SIMBAD aggregate data from various missions and export results in various formats. Beautiful.
These services are integral to building useful software. We take archives for granted, but the idea behind them is great – a centralized place to access data. They are meant to be large and robust, they are meant to provide data when requested. They are built as a community resource so that we don’t all carry the entire Sloan Digital Sky Survey in our back pocket. But, like technology goes, the archives are dated. The services they provide are dated.
Web applications require direct access to external data. We want to forget about the notion of having a server hosting the application, and run all functionality from the browser. The application needs to access services like NED, CAS and SIMBAD, it needs to make requests across various domains. Unfortunately, this is not currently possible without a server to proxy requests. One quick (really quick) solution for the database developers is to provide a new export option – JSONP. This would permit web applications to successfully receive data without a proxy. Another solution is to enable cross-origin resource sharing. A web application would register with the archives, and the archives would permit this web application to make cross-domain requests.
We need these functionalities from the archives. With these capabilities we’ll be able to build sophisticated applications that aggregate from large data. This would be a step forward in generating quick correlations, conducting quick analyses, and allowing astronomers to be more efficient in their research.