Monthly Archives: July 2012

Oxford digital infrastructure to support research workshop

The University of Oxford have impressively attempted to marshal the diverse projects ranging across disparate areas of expertise in research data management at the university. I attended a DaMaRo workshop today to review the digital infrastructure required to meet the challenges of the multi disciplinary and institutional research landscape as it pertains to Oxford.

First and foremost, this is no mean feat in a university as diverse and dispersed as Oxford and Paul Jeffreys and colleagues are to be congratulated for the work to date. It’s hard enough attempting join up in a smaller, albeit research intensive university such as Leicester and the road is long and at times tortuous. Never mind potentially at odds with established university structures and careers…

I particularly liked the iterative approach taken during the workshop: so present key challenges to the various stakeholders present; provide an opportunity to reflect; then vote with your feet (ok, post-it notes in traffic light colours) on which areas should be prioritised. At the very least this is useful even if we may argue over which stakeholders are present or not. In this case the range was quite good but inevitably you don’t get so many active researchers (at least in terms of publishing research papers) at this kind of meeting.

In assessing the potential research services it was pointed out where a charging model was required, if not funded by the institution or externally. Turns out here at Oxford the most popular choice was the proposed DataFinder service (hence no weblink yet!) to act as a registry of data resources in the university which could be linked to wider external search. I remember during the UK Research Data Service pathfinder project that there was a clearly identified need for a service of this kind. Jean Sykes of LSE, who helped steer the UKRDS through choppy waters, was present and told me she is about to retire in a couple of months. Well done Jean and I note that UKRDS launched many an interesting and varied flower now blossoming in the bright lights of ‘data as a public good’ – an itch was more than scratched.

I also note in passing that it was one of the clear achievements of the e-science International Virtual Observatory Alliance movement, developed for astronomical research between 2000-2010, that it became possible to search datasets, tools and resources in general via use of community agreed metadata standards. Takes medium to long term investment but it can be done. Don’t try it at home and don’t try and measure it by short term research impact measures alone…even the  Hubble Space Telescope required a decade plus before it was possible to clearly demonstrate that the number of journal papers resulting from secondary reuse of data overtook the originally proposed work. Watch it climb ever upwards after that though…

Back to the workshop: we identified key challenges around Helpdesk type functionality to support research data services and who and how to charge when – in the absence of institutional funding. I should highlight some of the initiatives gaining traction here at Oxford but it was also pointed out that in house services must always be designed to work with appropriate external services. Whether in-house or external, such tools must be interoperable with research information management systems where possible.

Neil Jefferies described the DataBank service for archiving, available from Spring 2013, which provides an open ended commitment to preservation. The archiving is immutable (can’t be altered once deposited) but versioned so that it is possible to step back to an earlier version. Meanwhile Sally Rumsey described a proposed Databank Archiving & Manuscript Submission Combined DAMASC model for linking data & publications. Interestingly there is a serious attempt to work with a university spin off company providing the web 2.0 Colwiz collaboration platform which should link to appropriate Oxford services where applicable. It was noted that to be attractive to researchers a friendly user interface is always welcome. Launch date September 2012 and the service will be free to anyone by the way, in or out of Oxford.

Meanwhile, for research work in progress the DataStage project offers secure storage at the research group level while allowing the addition of simple metadata as the data is stored, making that step up to reusability all the easier down the line. It’s about building good research data management practice into normal research workflows and, of course, making data reusable.

Andrew Richards described the family of supercomputing services at Oxford. Large volumes of at risk storage are available for use on-the-fly but not backed up. You’d soon run into major issues trying to store large amounts of this kind of dataset longer term. There is also very little emphasis on metadata in the supercomputing context other than where supplied voluntarily by researchers. I raised the issue of sustainability of the software & associated parameters in this context where a researcher may need to be able to regenerate the data if required.

James Wilson of OUCS described the Oxford Research Database Service ORDS which will launch around November 2012 and again be run on a cost recovery basis. The service is targeted at hosting smaller sized databases used by the vast majority of researchers who don’t have in-house support or appropriate disciplinary services available to them. It has been designed to be hosted in a cloud environment over the JANET network in the same way as biomedical research database specific applications will be provided by Leicester’s BRISSkit project.

Last but not least, Sian Dodd showed the Oxford Research Data Management website which includes contact points for a range of research data lifecycle queries. It is so important to the often isolated researcher that there is a single place to go and find out more information and point to the tools needed for the job at hand.  Institutions in turn need to be able to link data management planning tools to in-house resources & costing information. To that end, the joint Oxford and Cambridge X5 project (named after the bus between the two) will go live in February 2013 and provide a tool to enable research costing, pricing & approval.

OR2012: Research Data Management and Infrastructure: institutional perspectives

Research data management can make a significant contribution to an institution’s research performance but needs solid user requirements research, an understanding of the researcher working space and a collaborative approach between researchers and support staff for infrastructure to be adopted, understood and sustained in the institution.  That was the message from this session on 11 July in Edinburgh at Open Repositories 2012 on research data management and infrastructure, from the perspectives of three particular institutions.

Unmanaged to managed

First we heard from Natasha Simons from Australia’s Griffith University.  Natasha made a clear connection between the university’s position in the top 10 research universities of Australia, and the existence of their Research Hub, which was developed with funding from the Australian National Data Service.  The Hub stores data and relationships between the data, exports to ANDS, and provides Griffiths researchers with their own profiles which allow better collaboration across the institution by allowing researchers to find others with similar research interests for collaboration and supervision.

Natasha outlined some challenges the Griffith team have met and are currently facing, but ultimately reported that they are successfully transforming institutional data in line with ANDS aims from unmanaged to managed; disconnected to connected; invisible to visible; and single-use to reusable.

Resourcing for RDM

Another institution which connects RDM with its prestigious position in the research league tables is Oxford; Sally Rumsey of the University’s Bodleian library took us through their vision for their institutional research data management infrastructure, encompassing current work on the Oxford DMP Online and the DaMaRO project; data creation and local management (DataStage, ViDASS); archival storage and curation (DataBank, software store); and data discovery and dissemination (document repository, Oxford DataFinder and Colwiz).

Sally argued that that data management doesn’t stop at digital objects:

“Paper in filing cabinets, specimens in jars: all could exist as data.”

She also reminded us that although emerging funder requirements, and particularly this year’s EPSRC roadmap requirement, were doing much to focus minds on RDM, there is also the challenge of unfunded research, a major component of research activity at Oxford.  This needs requirements and funding for management, too.

Sally was asked whether researchers were going to end up paying for RDM infrastructure.  She argued that there needs to be a budget line in research bids to cover these costs.  This prompted me to think about the fact that we talk about getting researchers trained from the start of their research activity, but to bring about the kind of awareness that will lead to researchers knowing to cost in data management in their bid, we need to engage with them before they start even writing the bid.  This is an argument for engagement at PhD level at the latest, and for a much wider and more consistent provision of RDM training in universities in order to bring about this kind of change in culture.  Clearly we also need simple, accessible costing tools to help non-specialists quantify explicit costs for data management and preservation, for inclusion in funding bids.

Adopt, adapt, develop

Anthony Beitz, manager of Australia’s Monash University eResearch Centre, also has nascent culture change in mind.  He described the availability of research data as having the potential to change research work:

“We’re going to see things we’ve never seen before.”

Anthony’s description of how the eResearch team works at Monash is based on a clear understanding of the characteristics of the research space and how that differs from the way in which IT services staff work.

  • Researchers: focused on outcomes.  They work in an interpretive mode, using iterative processes.  The approach may be open-ended and thrives on ambiguity.  Requirements and goals may change over time.  May require an ICT capability for only a short period of time – don’t tend to care what happens to it after the end of the project.  Resourceful, driven, and loyal to their discipline more than the institution.
  • IT services: broad service base.  Supporting administration, education and research.  Continuity of IT services is a priority.  Excel at selecting and deploying supporting institutional enterprise solutions.  IT works in analytical mode as opposed to the research space, which is in interpretive mode.

The volume of data is growing exponentially, but funding to manage it is certainly not.  In this context, a clear articulation of need between the researcher space and the IT services space is crucial.  Anthony argues that researchers need to participate actively in the deployment of an institution’s RDM infrastructure.  Media currently used is not good for reliability, security or sharing, but no single institutional RDM platform will fit all researchers’ needs.  RDM solutions must be a good cultural fit as researchers have stronger synergies with colleagues beyond the institution and are more likely to use solutions within their disciplines.  Anthony suggests that IT services should adopt existing solutions being used within disciplines, where possible, as building a new one breaks the collaboration cycle for researchers with colleagues from other institutions, asserting, “going into development should be a last resort.”

In this way, much of the RDM activity at Monash seems to be explicitly responding to current researcher behaviours.  Adoption of emerging solutions is encouraged by promoting a sense of ownership by the researchers; by delivering value early and often; and by supporting researchers in raising awareness of a RDM platform to their research community.  If users don’t feel they own a resource, they’ll look to the developers to sustain funding.  If they feel ownership, they’ll look for funding for it themselves, so buy-in is not only good for adoption but also for sustainability.