September 4, 2009

XML training in Oxford

XML Summer School 2009The XML Summer School returns this year at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford from 20th-25th September 2009. As always, it’s packed with high quality technical training for every level of expertise, from the Hands-on Introduction for beginners through to special classes devoted to XQuery and XSLT, Semantic Technologies, Open Source Applications, Web 2.0, Web Services and Identity. The Summer School is also a rare opportunity to experience what life is like as a student in one of the world’s oldest university cities while enjoying a range of social events that are a part of the unique summer school experience.

This year, classes and sessions are taught and chaired by:

W3C XML 10th anniversaryThe Extensible Markup Language (XML) has been around for just over ten years, quickly and quietly finding its niche in many different areas of science and technology. It has been used in everything from modelling biochemical networks in systems biology [1], to electronic health records [2], scientific publishing, the provision of the PubMed service (which talks XML) [3] and many other areas. As a crude measure of its importance in biomedical science, PubMed currently has no fewer than 800 peer-reviewed publications on XML. It’s hard to imagine life without it. So whether you’re a complete novice looking to learn more about XML or a seasoned veteran wanting to improve your knowledge, register your place and find out more by visiting xmlsummerschool.com. I hope to see you there…


  1. Hucka, M. (2003). The systems biology markup language (SBML): a medium for representation and exchange of biochemical network models Bioinformatics, 19 (4), 524-531 DOI: 10.1093/bioinformatics/btg015
  2. Bunduchi R, Williams R, Graham I, & Smart A (2006). XML-based clinical data standardisation in the National Health Service Scotland. Informatics in primary care, 14 (4) PMID: 17504574
  3. Sayers, E., Barrett, T., Benson, D., Bryant, S., Canese, K., Chetvernin, V., Church, D., DiCuccio, M., Edgar, R., Federhen, S., Feolo, M., Geer, L., Helmberg, W., Kapustin, Y., Landsman, D., Lipman, D., Madden, T., Maglott, D., Miller, V., Mizrachi, I., Ostell, J., Pruitt, K., Schuler, G., Sequeira, E., Sherry, S., Shumway, M., Sirotkin, K., Souvorov, A., Starchenko, G., Tatusova, T., Wagner, L., Yaschenko, E., & Ye, J. (2009). Database resources of the National Center for Biotechnology Information Nucleic Acids Research, 37 (Database) DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkn741

May 24, 2006

Dub Dub Dub 2006

The 15th International World Wide Web conference is currently underway in Edinburgh, Bonny Scotland. As usual, this popular conference has some good papers, only 11%* of submissions are accepted. One particular paper caught my eye: One Document to Bind Them: Combining XML, Web Services, and the Semantic Web. This paper has probably been selected because it will wind people up (sorry I mean “spark a debate”) so its an entertaining and sometimes enlightening read.

In this paper, Harry Halpin and Henry Thompson make some observations about the state of the web in 2006:

But, according to the authors, it doesn’t have to be this way…

  1. Many (but not all) web services are functions that are available on the web,
  2. The semantic web gives us an elaborate type system, using ontologies, which can extend what we already have with XML Schema
  3. The combination of the first two, gives us Semantic Web Services which are typed functions. This allows us to invoke web services not just by their URI (e.g. http://xml.nig.ac.jp/xddbj/Blast for a Blast service), but by the type of information they have. E.g. you have an output of type BLAST_report or perhaps InterProScan_report, what services will take this as input? What operations can be performed on this data? This sounds a lot like BioMOBY, with bells on.

What Harry and Henry propose is tying all this together using a single XML vocabulary, called Semantic fXML, to put “a unified abstraction of data, types and functions” so that the web can compute. This is all a bit pie-in-the-sky vision of the future stuff, but what might it mean for your average bioinformatican? It would be seriously useful if we could make the current molecular biology web services easier to use, but agreeing on and using an ontology for annotating the types of the inputs and outputs of all the services is non-trivial task. Bioinformaticians already have a (somewhat limited) universal type system for describing all data in bioinformatics, its called string. Persuading them to use something more powerful is not easy unless the benefits are immediately obvious.

At the moment, it is difficult to tell if sfXML will ever have any impact on bioinformatics but who cares? Despite this, the paper is enjoyable reminder of what is interesting about services on the Web. They transform the web from a place where we can merely search and browse for data (sequences, genes, proteins, metabolic pathways, systems etc), into “one vast de-centralised computer” a bit like the one described in can computers explain biology? This, in my humble opinion, is what makes the web and bioinformatics an exciting place to work in 2006.

* Footnote: Of nearly 700 papers submitted: only 81 research papers were accepted (11%). This is a 25% increase on the number of submissions last year to www2005 in Chiba, Japan.


  1. Harry Halpin and Henry S. Thompson (2006) One Document to Bind Them: Combining XML, Web Services, and the Semantic Web in Proceedings of the 15th international conference on World Wide Web, Edinburgh Scotland DOI:10.1145/1135777.1135877
  2. This post originally published on nodalpoint with comments

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