Researchers worldwide try to understand how cells move, a process extremely important for many physiological and pathological conditions. Cell migration
is in fact involved in many processes, like wound healing, neuronal development and cancer invasion. The Cell Migration Standardization Organization (CMSO) is a community building standards for cell migration data, in order to
enable data sharing in the field. The organization has three main working groups:

  • Minimal reporting requirement (developing MIACME, i.e. the Minimum Information About a Cell Migration Experiment)
  • Controlled Vocabularies
  • Data Formats and APIs

In our last working group, we discussed where the Data Package specifications[1] could be used or expanded for the definition of a standard format and the corresponding libraries to interact with these
standards. In particular, we have started to address the
standardization of cell tracking data. This is data produced using tracking software that reconstructs cell movement in time based on images from a microscope.

In pink, the ISA (Investigation Study Assay) model to annotate the experimental metadata; in blue, the OME (Open Microscopy Environment) model for the imaging data; in green, our biotracks format based on the Data Package specification for the analytics data (cell tracking, positions, features etc.); in purple, CV: Controlled Vocabulary; and in turquoise, MIACME: Minimum Information About a Cell Migration Experiment. CC BY-SA 4.0 Credit: Paola Masuzzo (text) and CMSO (diagram).

CMSO deals specifically with cell migration data (a subject of cell biology). Our main challenge lies in the heterogeneity of the data. This diversity has its origin in two factors:

  • Experimentally: Cell migration data can be produced using many diverse techniques (imaging, non-imaging, dynamic, static, high-throughput/screening, etc.)
  • Analytically: These data are produced using many diverse software packages, each of these writing data to specific (sometimes proprietary) file formats.

This diversity hampers (or at least makes very difficult) procedures like meta-analysis, data integration, data mining, and last but not least, data reproducibility.

CMSO has developed and is about to release the first specification of a Cell Tracking format. This
specification is built on a tabular representation, i.e. data are stored in tables. Current v0.1 of this specification can be seen at here.

CMSO is using the Tabular Data Package[2] specification to represent cell migration-derived tracking data, as illustrated
here. The
specification is used for two goals:

  1. Create a Data Package representation where the data—in our
    case objects (e.g. cells detected in microscopy images), links,
    and optionally tracks—are stored in CSV files, while metadata and
    schema[3] information are stored in a JSON file.
  2. Write this Data Package to a pandas[4] dataframe, to aid quick
    inspection and visualization.

You can see some examples

I am an Open Science fan and advocate, so I try to keep up to date
with the initiatives of the
Open Knowledge International teams. I think I first became aware of Frictionless Data when I saw
a tweet and I checked the specs out. Also, CMSO really wanted to keep
a possible specification and file format light and simple. So
different people of the team must have googled for ‘CSV and JSON
formats’ or something like that, and Frictionless Data popped out 😃.

I have opened a couple of issues on the
GitHub page of the spec, detailing what I would like to see developed in the Frictionless Data project. The
CMSO is not sure yet if the Data Package representation will be the
one we’ll go for in the very end, because we would first like to know
how sustainable/sustained this spec will be in the future.

CMSO is looking into expanding the
list of examples
we have so far in terms of tracking software. Personally, I would like
to choose a reference data set (a live-cell, time-lapse microscopy
data set) , and run different cell tracking algorithms/software
packages on it. Then I want to put the results into a common, light
and easy-to-interpret CSV+JSON format (the biotracks format), and show
people how data containerization[5] can be the way to go to
enable research data exchange and knowledge discovery at large.

With most other specifications, cell tracking data are stored in tabular format, but metadata
are never kept together with the data, which makes data interpretation
and sharing very difficult. The Frictionless Data specifications take good care of
this aspect. Some other formats are based on XML[6] annotation,
which certainly does the job, but are perhaps heavier (even though
perhaps more sustainable in the long term). I hate Excel formats, and
unfortunately I need to parse those too. I love the integration with
Python[7] and the pandas[4:1] system, this is a big plus
when doing data science.

As a researcher, I mostly deal with research data. I am pretty sure if
this could work for cell migration data, it could work for many cell
biology disciplines as well. I recommend speaking to more researchers and data producers to determine additional use cases!

  1. Data Package: /specs/data-package ↩︎

  2. Tabular Data Package: /specs/tabular-data-package ↩︎

  3. Table Schema: /specs/table-schema ↩︎

  4. Pandas: Python package for data analysis: ↩︎ ↩︎

  5. Design Philosophy: /specs ↩︎

  6. Extensible Markup Language: ↩︎

  7. Data Package-aware libraries in Python:,, ↩︎