Data – Big or small – is a hot topic in higher education and in academic libraries. Scientists and scholars are collecting, analyzing and sharing increasing amounts of data. Institutions are trying to figure out how to support this and how to deal with their internal data.
This summer I’ve had the opportunity to discuss and learn more about data related issues affecting scholarly communication and higher education. It’s been a lot of fun. I’m working with various library staff members to try to get a handle on our internal library data needs, I’ve chatted with colleagues in libraries across the country about the data-related services they provide, and I’ve had the chance to talk with a wide variety of folks on my campus about their interests and concerns related to data.
These data issues cut across many institutional departments and units and I recently had an opportunity get folks across campus in the same room to talk about them over pizza. Library staff, computing & information technology staff, sponsored research administrators and faculty from across the disciplines shared their concerns and interests regarding the data.
What kinds of data issues are folks at a public liberal arts college interested in or concerned about? Mostly the stuff that you might imagine:
Archiving and long term availability of data - One of our faculty members recently tried to access some images stored on CD-ROM only to discover that the most recent operating system couldn’t read his disk. Any one who has tried to open early Microsoft Office documents has run into a similar problem. How can we make sure that data we still need is readable by the systems we have on hand?
Finding existing data - More and more data is being made available through scholarly publications, governments, NGOs and corporations. How can our faculty and students find this data and understand what they are seeing when they find it? How can the campus support new technologies that will help analyze this data?
Institutional policies and procedures – The administrators in the room brought up questions regarding institutional responsibility, especially since data will outlive the people who collected the data. How do we manage intellectual property concerns? Do things get more complicated when data is created/collected as the result of an inter-institution collaboration? Faculty and staff were interested in learning about existing campus expertise. Who are the campus experts on statistics? R? SPSS? ArcGIS? Metadata? Data discovery?
Data use and analysis – Everyone is using data, and most folks want a way to analyze it better and faster. How are scholars analyzing text, images and other qualitative data? What new tools are available to help with data analysis?
Pedagogical issues – As a small liberal arts college, our main focus is teaching. How can we help students find good data? What concerns should we have about student data when we ask them to post work online or create accounts for web services? What are the most effective ways to teach students about data?
Data storage – Last summer, my hard drive failed spectacularly. Luckily I had a Time Machine back up of all my files. How do individuals, labs and groups store and back up their data? What happens when one of our faculty suddenly needs more data storage capacity than our college currently has?
Data sharing and publication – Journals and funding agencies are requiring increasing amounts of data associated with publications. What are the best practices for making this data available and re-usable? What are the options for sharing and storing the data before or after publication?
Data services - Staff from the library & computing and information technology were especially interested in how we can support the faculty’s increasing data-related needs. How can we effectively communicate to faculty about the services we currently offer? Are there needs that we can support but don’t yet have services for?
Data management – Everyone in the room was managing data of some kind. Are there best practices that could make this easier? What strategies are available to help people re-use their data later on? For those working with personal data, what are the best ways to secure this data? How can we teach our undergraduate students, many of whom will go to graduate school, good data management practices?
New research possibilities – Several of the faculty in the room were exploring new research possibilities that are now available because of the increasing ability to find and use data. Humanists are exploring digital tools to understand texts and genres. Traditionally qualitative disciplines are becoming more quantitative. And scholars return to fundamental questions like, “What is data?”
We’ll have another discussion in a few weeks and see where things go from there. Few of these issues are going to be resolved in a one hour summer meeting, but I think getting everyone in the same room is a good start.