DASCH Data are Now Queryable In VO Tools

Earlier this week, Markus Demleitner let me know that he launched a project whose development we’ve been discussing for the past six months or so: DASCH data are now available in the Virtual Observatory!

If you’re familiar with DASCH’s legacy “Cannon” data services, you might be asking: “hasn’t DASCH had VO support for a while?” Yes, DASCH has had some limited support: basically, you could download certain data tables in the VOTable format as well as more basic plain-ASCII formats. If you manually navigate to the DASCH website, do a query, and set the right options, you can download a table in a VO format and then load it into a tool that recognizes that format, like TOPCAT.

You could call this “VO support” in a certain sense, but it’s a far cry from the vision that motivates the VO effort. In the current words of the IVOA About page, “The goal of the Virtual Observatory is to achieve the [feeling that astronomical data are] all available to explore in a single transparent system.” The 2001 US VO whitepaper, “Toward a National Virtual Observatory”, descibes a data access layer that “provides a uniform interface to all data and services within the NVO” (emphasis original). My read of the original VO documents is that the vision here was quite literal — there would be one VO portal where you would go to get “the data”, for any astronomical data in the world.

That hasn’t quite happened, but we do have an ecosystem of services and tools that use VO standards for data discovery, and DASCH has not been plugged into that ecosystem at all. Until now.

Markus has taken an export of the DASCH plate database and made it available as an ObsCore table, allowing the list of DASCH images to be queried using standard tools, and a SIAP2 service, providing a mechanism for people to actually download the images described in the ObsCore table. (That service in turn builds on the new StarGlass backend API.) His blog post on the GAVO site very nicely demonstrates how these building blocks can be integrated into existing VO tools to suddenly make DASCH data available and discoverable in ways that simply weren’t possible before.

I’m excited for this service to become available, and hopeful that it will help make DASCH data more widely available to astronomers. That being said, I also expect that we’ll continue developing non-VO data access APIs based on the StarGlass platform, and hopefully customized support in astroquery. In my experience, any non-trivial dataset always has facets that aren’t captured well by cross-cutting standards like ObsCore, and you find that power users of such a dataset virtually always benefit from a query interface that’s really specifically targeted at it. That’s especially true for DASCH, whose data are not only quite unusual, but also potentially interesting to people coming from all sorts of disciplines.

We’ve already seen a first example of how one-size-fits-all can fall down: Markus has gotten some complaints because Aladin positional searches for images started yielding numerous hits for DASCH “meteor” plates, which are shallow, low-resolution images covering absolutely huge areas of the sky — dozens of degrees on a side, if I recall correctly. Not only do such large images cause problems for the Aladin UI, which was probably designed for images more like arcminutes on a side, but they’re also unlikely to be useful scientifically for most users either. Some of these plates were made with “telescopes” that consisted of literally three-inch camera lenses, and they have horrible vignetting, in addition to their terrible depth, resolution, and cosmetic defects. It may be true that if you pick any point in the northern-hemisphere sky, you’ll find that hundreds of DASCH meteor plates overlap it; but there are probably only a handful of people in the world who will ever want to look at them. We’ll probably restrict the default DASCH VO database to only include the narrow-field plates, which are more likely to be useful.

I think this issue nicely demonstrates the kind of challenges that arise when you take on a mission like that of the VO. The meteor plates can be perfectly well-described in the ObsCore format, and the query results being returned by Aladin are presumably perfectly correct — but it turns out when someone says that they want to see “all available data”, they really mean “all available data, but, like, obviously not including that”. Note that while there are technical elements to this problem, it’s not purely technical — it’s got design elements and potentially political ones as well. (What if I angrily insisted to Markus that every DASCH plate should turn up in every image cone search that intersects it, even if that means swamping other results in hundreds of meteor plates?) And the more you optimize for the common “well obviously I didn’t want that” case, the more you run the risk of losing out on the serendipitous discovery that many people clearly hope that the VO will promote. It’s a tricky balancing act!

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Later: The Small Web and Science

Earlier: A Modest Proposal for How to Do Digital Conference “Posters”

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