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Network Identity: 2009 All-Site Milestone and Reflection on Governance

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Issue: 
Spring 2011

Karen S. Baker (PAL, CCE) and Nicole Kaplan (SGS)

This report marks the 2009 milestone of all LTER sites implementing a common access to their LTER website and reviews the process of enactment. Achievement of the milestone means that any LTER site webpage now can be reached by a standardized URL (site_acronym.lternet.edu), e.g., for Palmer LTER, http://pal.lternet.edu/. It is the internet Domain Naming System (DNS) that makes it possible to assign a meaningful LTER Network domain name as an alias for access to each site and aids in representing sites as part of the LTER Network. In addition, the adoption of the alias over time provides an example of the LTER Information Management Committee (IMC) governance at work.

A Databits Newsletter article titled ‘Moving Toward Network Identity’ (Baker and Brunt, Fall 2001) first presented the notion of creating network identity through agreement on and use of a common network name designation. The implementation of this name-based virtual server was initiated on a volunteer basis. The Web Site Guidelines document (2009 Version 1.1; http://intranet.lternet.edu/im/im_requirements/webdesign_guidelines) delineates three categories of web site elements: 1) design elements that portray the site as part of the LTER Network, 2) organizational schemas that facilitate easy navigation to information and data, and 3) access to current and important data and content. One of the three items mentioned in the first category about contributions to network identity states: "The LTER network domain, lternet.edu, Domain Naming System (DNS) alias (site_acronym.lternet.edu) may be used to reach a site’s homepage in addition to the local URL." This Guideline was reviewed and accepted by the
Network Information System Advisory Committee (NISAC) in 2006 and subsequently
presented to the LTER Science Executive Board in 2007. In the LTER Site IM Review
Criteria, reference is made to the ‘Guidelines for LTER Web Site Design and
Content’.

By the All Scientist Meeting in 2009, the last few sites had implemented the alias prompted by results of an updated survey of implementation and by feedback from site reviews. Though a straight-forward addition of code to a system file for some sites, in other configurations implementation was non-trivial as in the case of a shared institutional web server having existing local conventions embedded in the system file. The implementation by the last few sites frequently required joint efforts of local institution and LTER Network Office system administrators.

The IMC process of implementing the alias over time provides not only the story of an all-site accomplishment but is also a chance to observe a real-life example of
a community-wide, locally-generated example of coordination. The LTER
 Information Management Committee Governance Working Group has identified such examples as important opportunities to reflect upon the ways of design and/or governance when we are mindful enough to remember, review, and describe our history collectively. This case represents an informal bottom-up approach to designing and enacting a network tool that would identify each site with an LTER web address. Although implementation ran into technical challenges at some sites, it was the compliance of the majority that inspired the last few to make this program a success for the entire Network. This exemplifies a community that voluntarily came into compliance with informal recommendations from the bottom-up as opposed to as a response to a mandate from above. In this case, one might ask whether the formality of a vote would have clarified the use of the alias as an optional guideline or as a network requirement 
for site reviews. Would an IMC, NISAC, or EB vote clarify agreements? Would their role remain informal? Would any action taken be
 documented in the minutes of the meeting? Would consideration of bringing it to vote help identify whether this is a topic that would benefit from further discussion? How was the nature of the alias adoption and enactment – unanimous and informal - different from other enacted standards and best practices? Does the alias mechanism represent an expectation that did not cross a tolerance threshold for impacting a majority of local information management workloads? Was it motivated by recognition at the sites of how this would ease day-to-day access to web sites of collaborative partners or was it driven by new expectations from NSF for a more cohesive Network presence online?

The LTER network has reached a milestone of standardized access to each LTER site website. This goal, initiated in 2001 when a coordination mechanism was recognized as both within reach and useful, was reached in 2009. In considering community governance issues and procedures, the milestone continues to serve as a useful vehicle for discussion.