Because good research needs good data

RDMF16 Technology Breakout Session

The DCC's Martin Donnelly reports on the Technology-themed breakout session at the RDMF16 event, which took place in Edinburgh in late November 2016.

Martin Donnelly | 25 January 2017

(The DCC's Martin Donnelly reports on the Technology-themed breakout session at the RDMF16 event, which took place in Edinburgh in late November 2016...)

This session was chaired by Graham Collins of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and followed on from his earlier presentation. Graham began by setting the scene, stating that it is hard to get a ‘helicopter view’ on all of a university’s data-related systems, and everyone comes to these systems with their own perspectives, agendas and priorities. Faculties and departments will often run their own data facilities. Consolidating these can be useful but may be hard to do in practice, and furthermore there is less of a pressing need to integrate legacy systems and related data, and what’s saved and linked needs to be useful.

Graham introduced the relatively new role (in academia at least) of the Enterprise Architect (EA). EA’s may come from a variety of backgrounds, and are generally located beside directors of IT services, with a focus on project/budget management and the bigger picture. They may come from a commercial background as opposed to within the academy, and may take more of a top-down approach than many university cultures are familiar with. This can lead to a clash between bottom-up (or ‘grassroots’) people like researchers who are just trying to get things done, and top-down people who seek to direct and control things. Every institution will contain a mixture of cultures. But enterprise-level people can be useful friends to have, especially when things go wrong… There were mischievous comments that allowing systems to reach breaking (or ‘creaking’ point) can focus minds, and help drive up understanding and investment.

Some attendees reported that in their experience a lot of system integrations bypass architecture, which compromises around the enterprise approach. There is a high degree of autonomy in universities, especially among researchers. Their views tend to carry the most weight, and we heard that some have started to complain about survey fatigue: “Stop asking us what we want and just provide something!”

There was further discussion about perspectives, with attendees reporting that some IT service providers’ understanding of RDM issues can be limited to disk space – ‘When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ – so education and advocacy remain important amongst this stakeholder group, as well as the data producers themselves. A key skill is knowing when and how to intervene, and a ‘long-game’ approach is important as opposed to a ‘quick-fix’.

Some expressed a concern that institutional mandates and funder requirements were not being followed. The mantra has been along the lines of “if you build it, they will come”, but service providers have been expecting a deluge of deposits which has not yet arrived – so where is it all? Systems alone cannot solve this – again, advocacy and awareness raising activities are crucial.