Group looks to join life sciences with Web services

By Ashlee Vance
Wednesday, 13 March, 2002

A consortium of technology heavyweights and life sciences bodies has put the finishing touches on the group's agenda designed to make sending research data between organisations easier.

After several months of work, representatives from Sun Microsystems, IBM, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, the Whitehead Institute and others have finalised the organisational structure of The Interoperable Informatics Infrastructure Consortium (I3C).

With board members, an agenda and a contact based in Washington DC in place, the group hopes to accelerate its goal of sending complex scientific data across disparate computing networks.

The I3C is looking to mimic some of the work being done by airlines, websites and phone companies to link parts of different companies' data infrastructure, said Tim Clark, vice president of informatics at Millennium Pharmaceuticals and lead member of I3C.

This concept, known as web services, has emerged as a hot topic as companies try to make it possible, for example, to buy an airline ticket and then have the dates of the flight automatically plugged into the consumer's web-based calendar.

Some of the key parts of this process from a computing standpoint are the Java programming language, XML (extensible mark-up language), SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration), standards for creating a consistent set of technologies for exchanging data between various organisations.

Members of I3C will look into the roles that Java, XML, SOAP and UDDI can play in making legacy applications and large sets of data used within one organisation more accessible to the life sciences industry as a whole, said Jill Mesirov, chief information officer and director of bioinformatics and computational biology at the Whitehead Institute Center for Genome Research.

"It is really a broad community effort to create a mechanism by which we can all make our software systems more efficient," Mesirov said.

The consortium's representatives likened their problems to those faced by banks setting up ATMs (automatic teller machines). The banks needed to work together to make sure account information travelled across various banking networks. Now, the research organisations want to make sure they can send key data back and forth in a similar fashion.

Mesirov is heading the team that will outline I3C's plan for this year to make this software compatibility dream a reality. Already, the consortium hopes to agree on a way of representing the genomic sequence in XML and making various middleware products XML-, SOAP- and UDDI-enabled. A more detailed plan will arrive in the next few months, Mesirov said.

Members of I3C were quick to stress that they do not want to be a standards body, creating protocols and regulations for work in this area. Instead, the group hopes to try various methods for opening up data to more people and to present models of what works best.

The I3C issued a press release on Tuesday announcing their organizational structure, ways to apply for membership and a central phone number for contacting the group. More than 60 life sciences and IT organizations have participated in the project to date.

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