Mesh4x: New Open Source Project for Data Meshes

posted on: April 24, 2008

Today we created a new open source project to host InSTEDD‘s efforts on data meshes.

The goal for the project is to provide libraries, tools and applications that simplify using standards-based data meshes. Our contributions will be based on the requirements observed in global health, community development and humanitarian aid.

You can find the project here: http://code.google.com/p/mesh4x/

Our first contribution to the project consists of some libraries that implement the FeedSync specification, an open standard that describes version vectors, and processes for conflict detection and conflict preservation. FeedSync also happens to be one of the underpinnings of Microsoft’s consumer-targeted Live Mesh, but could be used happily on any platform as it’s based on extensions to RSS and ATOM – an obvious idea is to build a Feedsync javascript adapter for Google Gears).

Because of the project’s emphasis on standards, we structured the source tree so it would host implementations in more than one platform and language. ‘Mesh4x’ has 2 starter source code folders – Mesh4j (Java), Mesh4n (.NET – a large C# contribution done by Clarius Labs and the Microsoft XML MVPs who already had an open source version, unit tests and all). We hope to eventually see Mesh4php, Mesh4r (Ruby) and so on.

It’s a start. InSTEDD’s work in SE Asia in addition to the input of humanitarian aid agencies and other providers of technology for social good will be the drivers behind our contributions. We expect work in these areas:

  • Adapters to different stores (e.g. MySQL, or application-specific formats, such as KML), for servers & clients, and the ETL (extract, transform, load) that goes at heterogeneous endpoints. I heard a great idea today for building open-source VMs that run on Amazon’s cloud hosting.
  • Implementations that work on mobile devices (for example, we are currently refactoring the Java library to run in J2ME)
  • Support for different transports (plain XML over files, or HTTP is a start, but there are optimizations that can be done for low bandwidth, no-Internet scenarios, or integrating with a transport mesh like WASTE).
  • Integrating implementations with standards-based authentication and data signing approaches.
  • ..your contributions!

Applicability for Humanitarian & Health Scenarios

So why are we at InSTEDD interested in this? Data meshes have some interesting properties:

  • Symmetrical: They allow data to exist in a concurrent multi-master environment where updates can be applied at any node in the mesh.
  • Asynchronous: They allow offline updates to information and synchronization with other nodes without requiring data locks, essential for occasionally connected applications.
  • Dynamic: The synchronization can happen even in constantly changing connectivity topologies. I can sync to a server and later the sync can be done between my client and another client, who could then sync with another server if the first one is there, and so on.

These properties make them very suitable for humanitarian, crisis, and health care environments, where information sharing, data system integration, and technologies that assist politically neutral solutions are beneficial. For example:

  • Symmetry allows you to have two audiences work on the same data through different applications, with no application being the ‘master’.  You can also have data sharing of sensitive information between countries or organizations with no country hosting more or less data than the other. See Mary Jane‘s post about the NGOs in Cambodia, to understand how important this symmetry and neutrality can be. It also allows data to move around a user independently of the device it’s been created on.
  • Asynchronicity allows work to happen in environments where data connections are unavailable, bandwidth is low, or the only ‘transport’ is a USB stick.
  • Dynamism allows the field teams to share data amongst themselves and servers as early as possible. Unlike email, there is no need to wait for connectivity to a specific server to let the information free.

One idea could be to add data mesh capabilities to Sahana, allowing any instance running on a server or laptop to edit the information and ‘sync’ both ways with any other server or laptop. We have also heard scenarios where users of FrontlineSMS could synchronize information amongst themselves. If anyone is interested we’d happily work with you to see how to approach this..

Come and participate – lets share our scenarios, ideas, and code here: http://code.google.com/p/mesh4x/

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