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:

RDA Meeting Part 1: The RDA Organization

Did you know that the National Academy of Sciences was founded in 1863, at the height of the Civil War? This is "Capture of Ricketts' Battery", depicting action during the First Battle of Bull Run" From Wikimedia Commons.

Did you know that the National Academy of Sciences was founded in 1863, at the height of the Civil War? From Wikimedia Commons.

This week nearly 400 data nerds flooded the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, for the second Plenary Meeting of the Research Data Alliance. I was among those nerds, and I’ll review some highlights of the #RDAplenary in my next blog post. First, however, I want to provide an overview of this thing called RDA.

The organization is funded via Australian, European Union, and US government agencies. Work started around August 2012 and focuses on “research data sharing without barriers”.  The National Science Foundation awarded $2.5 million to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to participate in the RDA (read more in the NSF press release), which suggests that the NSF is very interested in the mission of the RDA. From the RDA website:

The Research Data Alliance aims to accelerate and facilitate research data sharing and exchange. The work of the Research Data Alliance is primarily undertaken through its working groups. Participation in working groups and interest groups, starting new working groups, and attendance at the twice-yearly plenary meetings is open to all.

An important note is that the RDA is NOT a funding body. It doesn’t fund participants at meetings, nor does it pay for infrastructure development or implementation. Think of the RDA as a means for folks interested in common subjects to get together twice yearly and try to ensure that

  1. no one is reinventing the wheel,
  2. standards, ontologies, and solutions are as universal as possible, and
  3. careful consideration is being given to all aspects of developing services, tools, and standards for data sharing.

The working groups at the RDA are where the rubber meets the road. According to the website,

Working Groups conduct short-lived, 12-18 month efforts that implement specific tools, code, best practices, standards, etc. at multiple institutions.

There are currently 8 working groups listed on the website; if I’m not mistaken a few more were born this week. Working group members are expected to make a commitment to ensure the working group goals are met in the allotted time. They are essentially volunteers, who contribute their time and travel budgets to participate in the RDA. In some cases, RDA members join forces to write funding proposals to various agencies (NSF and international counterparts).

Anyone interested in the helping to meet the goals of the RDA and its working groups is invited to join. I expect that the list of members includes bureaucrats, administrators, computer scientists, librarians, and many others. The RDA website has a few bios of some of the RDA’s leaders here. If you are interested in participating, check out the RDA website on how to get involved. In next week’s post I’ll share my impressions of the RDA meeting I attended.