Because good research needs good data

IDCC14 Preview: Fran Berman

With only six weeks until the 9th International Digital Curation Conference in San Francisco, it's time for the third in our series of preview posts - Dr Francine Berman from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute gives us her perspective on both the upcoming challenges and exciting developments...

Lorna Brown | 07 January 2014

With only six weeks until the 9th International Digital Curation Conference in San Francisco, it's time for the third in our series of preview posts - Dr Francine Berman from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute gives us her perspective on both the upcoming challenges and exciting developments afoot within Research Data Management....

The theme of this year's conference is how data-driven developments are changing the world around us. What scientific breakthroughs, technical advances or potential new opportunities excite you the most?

At this point, and over the next decade, we are seeing data used in unprecedented ways and unprecedented amounts to advance research, commerce, and virtually all areas of life.  Some of the things that excite me the most are the questions that we are just beginning to grapple with at scale to best take advantage of the potential of digital data: 

  • What do we know about the quality and applicability of the information we have available to us? 
  • What is needed to create a sustainable ecosystem of the data on which we have come to depend? 
  • How should we deal with issues such as access vs. control of data, the rights of individuals vs. the rights of groups, the development of “governance” frameworks in which to resolve conflicts around data? 

All of these issues will be critical in order to get the most out of the digital information available now and on the horizon.

You've been recognised by the Library of Congress as a 'Digital Preservation Pioneer' and by BusinessWeek and Newsweek as one of the top women in technology - what advice would you give to up-and-coming technology professionals?

Professional life can be both wonderful and challenging. I have learned important and useful lessons in every position I’ve had and at each stage of my career. Throughout, I’ve always thought three things were particularly important: 1) keep your eye on the ball, 2) give something back, and 3) maintain your sense of humour. Keeping your eye on the ball and your focus on overarching goals helps you keep your priorities straight, and helps you navigate the inevitable issues and challenges that arise when groups come together to do hard and complicated things. Giving something back is an investment in your community and a recognition that it takes a village to do things that matter.  Maintaining your sense of humour helps you keep things in perspective. Not every problem is cataclysmic …

You've been involved in so many leading initiatives over recent years, such as the Blue Ribbon Task Force for Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, the NPACI and the Research Data Alliance - what do you perceive to be the main challenges that the curation community now faces?

The curation community faces a number of technical challenges, but I think that the social and cultural challenges for us are at least as difficult. Meeting community goals requires economic, policy, administrative, and political support, as well as community cultural acceptance and buy-in. These social and organisational challenges are critical for success and must be addressed along with the technical challenges.

The importance of addressing social and organisational challenges became really clear to me during our wonderful discussions on the Blue Ribbon Task Force. In many discussions about access and use of digital data, there is often an underlying assumption that the data will be available somewhere or from someone when it is needed. Yet the cohort of cost-effective and economically sustainable stewardship options is insufficient to support the current and potential use of our valuable digital data, especially for research. Addressing the economics of data stewardship is critical for us to make the most of the fundamental “natural resource” of the information age.

Your presentation will focus on the broader data ecosystem and worldwide efforts, such as the Research Data Alliance, to build and use data infrastructure. Are there any specific messages you would like people to take away from your talk?

Two points in particular are important: First, accessing, using, and making the most of digital data requires an integrated ecosystem of technical, social, organisational and economic approaches and solutions. Second, digital data is a high priority and data ecosystems are being built all over the world.  Coordination, leveraging, and expansion of these efforts, the focus of the work we are doing in the Research Data Alliance, can help accelerate the data infrastructure needed for new innovation, and the building and coordination of data ecosystems.

These points in some sense are calls to action for our community. If we can help advance the responsible building of digital data ecosystems, we will be better able to take advantage of the tremendous digital assets available to us, and to use them to address critical societal and scientific challenges.

What recent developments in the field of Research Data Management do you expect to influence conversations at this year's IDCC?

A particularly timely topic in the US and elsewhere is the topic of public access to publicly funded data. A pre-requisite for access is stewardship, yet the logistical and economic challenges of digital stewardship are often not a part of the public access discussion. Data communities are struggling with the challenge of providing adequate stewardship and increased discoverability with no new money. I expect that this will be a concern for many of the IDCC participants.

Which papers or aspects of the programme are you particularly looking forward to?

I’m excited about the depth, breadth and quality of the program. A number of the talks provide a holistic view of the data community opportunities and challenges and the sessions provide strategic and tactical approaches critical for progress. It looks like a great program and I’m delighted to be involved.

Fran's keynote presentation is on Day 1 of the conference, 25 February. Full Programme is now available.

Register for IDCC14.