Because good research needs good data

IDCC13: on reflection

IDCC13, the 8th International Digital Curation Conference, took place in Amsterdam last week. Kevin Ashley picks out some personal high points and provides pointers to all the extra material available for those who weren't there and those who were.

Kevin Ashley | 05 February 2013

IDCC13 and its associated workshops took place in Amsterdam a few weeks ago - the first time we've run the International Digital Curation Conference in continental Europe. The increased attendance and enthusiastic involvement of many new colleagues from northern Europe certainly made the move worthwhile for us and we look forward to returning in future years. In this post I'll pick out a few of my personal highlights from the event and also describe the growing amount of conference material, from papers to blog posts, that's available from the DCC site. One particularly special moment I'll keep for the very end of this post. Keep reading....


The conference was full of highlights for me and these are very selective and somewhat random recollections. We had a positive outcome from our Monday workshop on the Research Data Alliance, but I intend to write a fuller account of that so will say no more here. Being there meant I missed the joint US/UK/Australia workshop on data management planning which seemed to combine a good summary of the state of the art with plans for future development at national and international levels.

The keynotes and plenaries on day one exceeded my expectations in the quality of their presentations and the breadth of views they brought to the issues. Ewan Birney told us of the difference that good infrastructure makes to research in the life sciences; Hans Pfeiffenberger nearly started an argument in passing about what constituted the world's largest experiment; Kaitlin Thaney showed what commercial providers can do for us and how we can work with them; and Anthony Beitz and Patricia Cruse both gave us good doses of common sense combined with insight into how to progress provision within the institution. After lunch, the poster authors outdid themselves with the speed of their pitches during minute madness. 45 presentations in 37 minutes outdid anything The Ramones were capable of and generated lots of conversation in the poster sessions that followed.

Herbert van de Sompel speaking at IDCC13Herbert Van de Sompel's opening on day 2 was refreshing and informative, particularly for anyone who (like me) has been involved in the design and testing of distributed architectures and protocols. Herbert looked not just at the current state of the web for scholarly communication, but at the history of how we got here and the things which, with hindsight, were not ideal solutions. In doing so he gave us a good lesson in the history of technology and its uptake, describing why things such as OAI-PMH were an appropriate solution for their time even if one would not design something in that way today. Some complained that Herbert spoke only about work he was involved with, and this was true. But he has done enough in this area to deserve a keynote devoted to his own work, and in doing so he could give us insight that would not have been possible if he had described the work of others.

And then there were the papers in parallel sessions. Like many I was faced with difficult choices, so the pleasure of seeing David Rosenthal unpick the economics of using Amazon Glacier for preservation storage was tempered by the disappointment of missing Peter Doorn captivate an audience discussing the role of data sharing in preventing research fraud.

We ended with presentations for best poster (decided by public vote) and best research paper (decided by the conference co-chairs). The latter was won deservedly by Elizabeth Yakel & Ixchiel Faniel for their paper on "Trust in Digital Repositories." The poster competition was close-run, with 3 entries receiving very high marks all of whom were recognised on the day, but the winner was "Rightfield - semantic annotation within spreadsheets by stealth"

Thursday saw another set of scheduling conflicts with 4 workshops every one of which I would have liked to attend. Unfortunately I could only manage one, which was organised with the cooperation of the Knowledge Exchange, a group of like-minded European funders and national infrastructure providers. We considered the possibility of developing common pricing (as opposed to costing) models for research data repositories. What should have been a simpler question to deal with still turned out to be complex, unfortunately.


Although the DCC staff do a great deal to make the conference happen, we couldn't achieve what we do alone. This year our collaborators in the Netherlands at DANS and at TU Delft were a great help with local logistics, but more importantly with publicising the event to many people that we might not otherwise have reached. I'm also grateful for the sterling support and advice provided by Cliff Lynch at CNI and for the support of Jisc whose funding for the DCC originally made this conference possible; much of the work they have funded now fills its programme! The conference is also made that bit more affordable and enjoyable due to the support of sponsors, this year being Elsevier (lanyards & the poster reception) and Microsoft. We agreed with the latter that this year's opening reception would be a tribute to Lee Dirks whose enthusiastic and informed involvement in IDCC and many other endeavours was a joy to many of us.

Thanks also to the authors, presenters and all of those who attended for making the event the success that it was. We can provide the infrastructure, as it were, of a place and a programme, but it is those who turn up who make it do something useful.

Blogs, papers, videos, images and more

We're using the IDCC13 conference home page as a single point of reference for all the material that we and others brought to and generated from the conference. As well as material which is now there for historical interest (such as the call for papers) you'll find a growing number of extras. Almost all of the presentations used are now linked directly to their entries in the programme ; the same is true for many of the presentations used in the workshops. We've also got videos of the plenary sessions and two collections of photographs on our flickr account. In addition, there's a growing set of blog posts by DCC staff and others about individual sessions and take-home messages that we're maintaining a single page of links to. Attendees at the conference will have received copies of the initial drafts of papers or abstracts on the USB flash drives that formed part of their lanyard. The final versions of all the research papers as well as many of the practice papers will appear in the next edition of the International Journal of Digital Curation.

And finally...

BBC news story on DNA storage paper in NatureBut what of the special moment? One week after the conference the technical world and general news were full of reports of an article in Nature reporting a significant advance in storage of data using DNA. More impressive, if one reads the original article, was the thoughtful analysis behind this of the economics of DNA storage and the situations and timescales in which it might move from being a laboratory curiosity to a commercial reality. So far, so 21st Century. What made this exciting was that IDCC13 attendees got a preview of the findings from one of the paper's co-authors a week before publication. Ewan Birney unexpectedly used the final minutes of his opening keynote to preview the paper's findings and techniques. He urged us all to silence until publication and I'm glad to say the audience respected that. We initially released the video of Ewan's talk without this segment, but the full uncut version is now available. Look for the segment from 30 minutes onward. It was inevitable that David Rosenthal, who has written at length on storage economics (and spoke on the topic on day 2) would have questions and it was great to see him & Ewan engaged in deep discussion over coffee. At how many other conferences would a storage expert get a chance to talk with a molecular biologist about a matter of common interest? It's our aim to create opportunities like this at IDCC. The work in Ewan's paper began with a discussion in a pub; many of the best ideas do.  See you next year in California!