Workshop Report: The Future of the Commons: Data, Software and Beyond

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On November 18, I had the opportunity to attend a one-day workshop sponsored by CENDI (Commerce, Energy, NASA, Defense Information Managers Group), the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS), and the Research Data Alliance (RDA/US) entitled “The Future of the Commons: Data, Software and Beyond…” It was an excellent day and I learned a lot about the landscape of data repositories, within the government and across university and nonprofit settings.

The Future of the Commons: Data, Software and Beyond...The first talk of the day was by John Wilbanks on the work he has done at Sage Bionetworks to develop a robust, open platform for clinical trials. He introduced the idea of the commons through his system’s design and explained how an open model for clinical trials and public health research, when implemented with the proper planning and disclosures to participants, could affect the marketplace and broaden the impact of data about essential public health decisions. His slides are here if this piqued your interest!

A majority of the program was a series of shorter talks on specific issues and examples of people building or maintaining data commons. Representatives from such diverse organizations as the NIH, Penn State, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), American University Law School, the Open Commons Consortium, and the University of Arizona, among others, shared their experiences building systems and providing access to scientific data. This was really useful to me as I am working on (among other things at NAL) the Ag Data Commons project, which seeks to build cyberinfrastructure for agricultural data.

One issue I was left thinking about at the end of the day was the dual nature of scientific data management and access systems. These platforms need to achieve two primary goals: the mandates of government open data policies such as those outlined in the OSTP memo and the needs of the scientists and other researchers who access and reuse scientific data. While the high-level goals to increase access to research data and preserve digital information cut across these two themes, oftentimes the needs of the two types of users represented by these communities are not compatible. For example, an average citizen looking for data about their home state would need some geospatial capability built into the data access portal, but does not require the the same amount of contextual or technical metadata as a researcher looking for data from a particular location with the goal of conducting geospatial analysis using GIS software.

Overall it was a great program and very successful day. I learned a lot and was inspired to keep exploring ways to broaden access to scientific data and government information. Were you at this event? What do you think about the different needs of the open government and scientific data communities? Let me know in the comments below!