RDA Meeting Part 2: The Meeting in DC

In last week’s post, I outlined the basic structure of the Research Data Alliance, a group intent on enabling international data sharing and collaboration. I attended the recent RDA 2nd Plenary in Washington, DC last week, and will share a few insights below.

The Good Stuff

The RDA has some seriously admirable ambitions, and they have many important people involved in the organization, working towards their goals. Summed up, the four great features about RDA are:

International involvement: Australia, European countries, and the US are all involved in supporting the RDA, and as such, it has the potential to influence international standards and interoperability.

Combining efforts: We are all aware of at least a couple of projects focused on data interoperability, infrastructure development, or other aspects of the brave new data world. The RDA is a place for those involved in these many disparate projects to meet up, discuss, and ensure the wheel doesn’t get reinvented.

Important people: There’s no doubt that everyone who’s anyone in the bureaucratic circles of the data world is at RDA. Having these important people, who are often heads of the many projects mentioned above, in the same room and talking about big-picture stuff is really important.

Flexible and community-driven: throughout the meeting in DC, I heard folks asking “What is our task?” or “How should we proceed?”. The answer was invariably that “it’s up to the working groups”. This means outputs won’t be tainted by secret agendas.

The Challenges

Working group woes: I’m a bit concerned about the membership of the working groups. It appears to be quite fluid, and varies from meeting to meeting. I sat in on a few working group meetings and neither committed to working on anything, nor shared my contact information. I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one in the room, which is potentially problematic. How will continuity of working group members be maintained? Who will be held accountable for the work? I am guessing the co-chairs of the working groups will be held accountable, but how likely are they to succeed when there is not a clear membership policy? I listed “flexible and community-driven” above as a good thing, but it has its limits. And finally, the working group names are not always well-suited for the goals of the group; this led to quite a bit of confusion at the meeting.

Diversity of attendees: If you followed the tweet stream from the meeting, you might have noticed the commentary on a lack of meeting attendee diversity. The gender balance in the audience was pretty good, but the speakers and panelists… not so much. More concerning, perhaps, was the complete lack of community members who actually produce and/or use data. It’s true that the focus on technical issues and these would not be of interest to the average data producer, but it’s important to include them in the conversation since RDA outputs will affect them. And then there’s the age balance… the average age of attendees was probably around 50, with very few attendees under 40. A lack of early-career attendees suggests that uptake of what the RDA produces might not be as easy as they think.

According to Wikipedia, "RDA" might stand for Richard Dean Anderson, aka MacGyver. Rad. (From Flickr by trainman74)

According to Wikipedia, “RDA” might stand for Richard Dean Anderson, aka MacGyver. Rad. (From Flickr by trainman74)

What’s missing: The working groups focus on fairly specific, technical topics that align with the goals of interoperable data. Although this is important, I was concerned by the lack of discussion about the cultural shift that will be required to encourage data sharing, and how it is best addressed. For example, the working groups on data citation zeroed in on the issues surrounding granularity of identifiers when citing a particular dataset. What about the promotion of data citation as a cultural norm? This corresponds to my concerns about a lack of practitioners contributing to the working groups.

All in all, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of the RDA. Perhaps I will see some of you at a future Plenary Meeting? The 3rd Plenary is in Dublin in March, followed by the Netherlands in Fall 2014. Stay tuned!

Other blog posts about the RDA 2nd Plenary:

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4 thoughts on “RDA Meeting Part 2: The Meeting in DC

  1. Fair comments Carly – long way to go but I’m cautiously optimistic at the range of disparate interests which have already come together in a relatively short space of time. We need to bring along the communities themselves, as you rightly point out, and that will require a kind of open approach that some stakeholders may not be used to. A touch of humility all round too – we’ve all got a surprising amount to learn from the other participants and we need researchers to validate the positions of their mission groups.

    Once accepted, an RDA Interest Group or Working Group now gets an automatic online RDA presence with collaboration tools including email distribution list etc which anyone can sign up and contribute to. I think that’s envisioned as the primary way for anyone to get involved (and sign up for a group). It is to be hoped the international funders can find ways to support and motivate more interested researchers to attend workshops in person. I think you’re right that more thought is needed on publicising and improving on the fledgling interfaces which are now starting to be used.

    On the cultural front, perhaps there has been an assumption from the already engaged that the many national and international reports, policies and even G8 statements have already argued the case for RDA. But having just talked to a bunch of astronomers yesterday (a field generally thought to be advanced in their thinking about data sharing!) I would certainly agree that there is still a long way to go in addressing the cultural challenges to incentivise and motivate those who actually *know* their data to take the necessary steps to make it genuinely available and reusable outside of the major facilities.

  2. These are insightful observations, particularly the item about the WG titles, and use of WG time at the Plenaries. I am passing this on to the RDA Technical Advisory Board for discussion on what can be done.

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