Because good research needs good data

IDCC13 and the Research Data Alliance

Kevin Ashley reports on a workshop at IDCC13 intended to introduce the ideas behind the Research Data Alliance and give attendees the chance to explore ways of engaging with this emerging organisation. He also looks forward to its first plenary in Gothenberg and considers ways in which the DCC...

Kevin Ashley | 17 March 2013

I'm currently on my way to Gothenburg for the first plenary meeting of the Research Data Alliance, or RDA as I'll refer to it from here on. It seems an appropriate point to fulfil a promise I made a month ago in my overview of IDCC13. I promised when I wrote that post that I would be writing separately about the pre-conference workshop we ran on the Research Data Alliance. Somewhat belatedly, this is that report. I'll also take the opportunity to reflect more widely on the RDA and what it means for the communities that the DCC engages with.

The RDA was mooted in meetings involving European, Australian and US funders that took place in summer 2012, although the idea of 'an IETF for data' goes back somewhat further. The RDA's own website, linked to above, gives fuller details of the history. It will be formally launched on March 18th at a 3 day meeting in Gothenburg. Meetings were held in the US and Europe beforehand to raise awareness and encourage participation, particularly in proposing and commenting on working groups. Working groups will be the core of the RDA's activity. To be approved, they need to define a clear task that can be accomplished in 12 to 18 months and have people involved with the resources to carry out those tasks. The RDA itself does not offer funds to working groups to carry out their activities, but it's a reasonable assumption that successful working groups may be able to attract funding from the funders who set up the RDA, and those who are now joining up. The first set of proposals for working groups was made public in January 2013; there was then a six week period for public comment, via the RDA's online forums. Anyone can make comments; the steering group uses the comments to inform decisions about which proposals go forward for approval by the plenary.

We chose to use the workshop to get people involved in this commenting process and make clear to everyone how easy it was to engage at this level and how useful their comments might be. I picked two candidate proposals, that for legal interoperability and one on certification of digital repositories. We presented everyone with copies of the case statements for these groups and the RDA's own definition of what a case statement should be like and the rules for evaluation of case statements. We asked everyone to make observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the statements and to decide which of the four possible outcomes for a candidate statement they thought was appropriate.

The four outcomes can be summarised as:

  1. Approve without changes
  2. Approve subject to specific changes (which must be agreed by the proposers)
  3. Send proposal back for revision with advice: an interesting idea, but not yet ready
  4. Declare proposal inappropriate for RDA approval

The workshop was broken into 7 or so groups of 5-8 people. As they reported back, I was very surprised at the level of agreement between groups. Without exception they assigned the same outcomes to each proposal. There was greater variety in the strengths and weaknesses but still many common themes emerged. Although there were some differences of emphasis there was very broad consensus about the state of the two proposals. One was seen as ready for approval subject to some important, specific changes. The other was definitely in category 3 - an interesting and important topic, but a proposal that needed a lot of work before a working group could begin based on its ideas.

I had deliberately picked two very different candidates for evaluation to see what reactions they would elicit, but I had not expected anything like this level of consistency in the response. Given that most of those in the room had only had 20 or 30 minutes to digest both the proposals and the rules for evaluation this is a very positive outcome for the RDA and bodes well for the future. I hope we also realised our goal of making people feel that the RDA is not an exclusive club but something which allows anyone with knowledge and an opinion to contribute in a variety of ways. One of the proposal authors was in the room and took the feedback we provided positively and revised the proposal as a result. I hope the other authors feel similarly.

It's too late to comment on these proposals now as the 6 week deadline has passed. The final vote of approval (or not) will happen in Gothenberg this week. But new proposals are already coming forward and being developed - you can engage with those, or make your own if you feel something of importance is not being addressed. Given that the RDA is just starting, it's likely that there are many, many such areas. The RDA is also developing its own governance procedures via this plenary and I will be chairing the penultimate session where this happens. I am keen to ensure that the voices of those outside the room are as well represented as those who are there in person. You can follow on the livestream of the whole plenary (available via the site), or just that final session. Tweet your thoughts using the hashtag #RDALaunch, and follow the @resdatall twitter account if you want to keep up with RDA news.

The RDA isn't directly relevant to everyone we work with. If you are a researcher who produces or uses data, or a service provider who looks to others to develop standards or tools, you may find the RDA's work too specialist in scope. But if you develop tools, protocols, terminologies, standards or other means to encourage data reuse then please do look to see how you can get involved. For us at the DCC, the RDA is one route to ensuring that our work is more sustainable and receives greater uptake. For instance, we'll be looking to see how maintenance of our metadata registry can be taken up by a worldwide group that the RDA can make possible and become something that everyone owns and contributes to, rather than just another piece of (rather excellent) advice from the DCC. You can do the same; don't work alone.