Trailblazers in Demography

Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting Rostock, Germany.  If your geography lessons were a long time ago, you are probably wondering “where’s Rostock?” I sure did… Rostock is located very close to the Baltic Sea, in northeast Germany.  It’s a lovely little town with bumpy streets, lots of sausage, and great public transportation.  I was there, however, to visit the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR).

Demography is the study of populations, especially their birth rates, death rates, and growth rates.  For humans, this data might be used for, say, calculating premiums for life insurance.  For other organisms, these types of data are useful for studying population declines, increases, and changes.  Such areas of study are especially important for endangered populations, invasive species, and commercially important plants and animals.

baby rhino

Sharing demography data saves adorable endangered species. From Flickr by haiwan42

I was invited to MPIDR because there is a group of scientists interested in creating a repository for non-human demography data.  Luckily, they aren’t starting from scratch.  They have a few existing collections of disparate data sets, some more refined and public-facing than others; their vision is to merge these datasets and create a useful, integrated database chock full of demographic data.  Although the group has significant challenges ahead (metadata standards, security, data governance policies, long term sustainability), their enthusiasm for the project will go a long way towards making it a reality.

The reason I am blogging about this meeting is because for me, the group’s goals represent something much bigger than a demography database.  In the past two years, I have been exposed to a remarkable range of attitudes towards data sharing (check out blog posts about it here, here, here, and here).  Many of the scientists with whom I spoke needed convincing to share their datasets.  But even in this short period of time that I have been involved in issues surrounding data, I have seen a shift towards the other end of the range.  The Rostock group is one great example of scientists who are getting it.

More and more scientists are joining the open data movement, and a few of them are even working to convert others to  believe in the cause.  This group that met in Rostock could put their heads down, continue to work on their separate projects, and perhaps share data occasionally with a select few vetted colleagues that they trust and know well.  But they are choosing instead to venture into the wilderness of scientific data sharing.  Let them be an inspiration to data hoarders everywhere.

It is our intention that the DCXL project will result in an add-in and web application that will facilitate all of the good things the Rostock group is trying to promote in the demography community.  Demographers use Microsoft Excel, in combination with Microsoft Access, to organize and manage their large datasets.  Perhaps in the future our open-source add-in and web application will be linked up with the demography database; open source software, open data, and open minds make this possible.

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