Kheeran Dharmawardena: My experience as a participant in the RDA COVID-19 Working Group

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13 Jul 2020

Kheeran Dharmawardena: My experience as a participant in the RDA COVID-19 Working Group

Principal Consultant at Cytrax Consulting, Australia

Mr. Kheeran Dharmawardena is the Principal Consultant at Cytrax Consulting, Australia

What roles did you play in the RDA COVID-19 Working Group?

I was one of the moderators for the Community Participation theme. The Community Participation theme guidelines and recommendations were written to support the work by the communities who are collecting, curating and sharing data with the goal of improving research outputs and public knowledge.

I'm also part of the working group looking at developing a navigation and visualisation tool to make it easier to find relevant information and recommendations quickly, without needing to read through the entire 124-page document.  


Why did you decide to join the group?

This is a global concern and a situation we've never seen in living history.  From the start of the crisis it was clear that the world was looking to data to help inform our responses. My background is in developing socio-technical solutions for data infrastructures. I've been involved in guiding how we generate, use and manage data for effective use, so this was the most impactful way that I could contribute my expertise towards helping with the COVID-19 challenge.


Who do you think will benefit most by applying these guidelines and recommendations (policymakers, researchers, etc.)?

The guidelines are written in a way to benefit all of the intended audiences. There is valuable content for each of the different groups, I don’t think one group would benefit more than the others.

Of course, the ultimate beneficiaries are the citizens of this world. When adopted, these guidelines will help make our response to the pandemic more effective, with less time lost in non-productive activities. If this work improves the time it takes to develop a vaccine by a day, we save thousands of lives. If it enables faster contact tracing, we save thousands of lives. If it enables increased confidence in cross-country testing and allows trade to resume, it saves thousands of jobs and makes it easier for economies to restart.


Can you identify a potential scenario where the guidelines and recommendations can be applied and help alleviate the impact of another potential emergency?

Although the motivation for this project was the COVID-19 pandemic, the information applies to and should be applicable to any medical emergency. If the guidelines and recommendations are broadly adopted by different actors around the world, it would make the exchange of data much easier, regardless whether it is a local or global emergency. Reducing the friction around use and reuse of data would result in improved response times.


What were the pros and cons of having to produce the report in such a small window of time?

The statement, "Never let a good crisis go to waste," keeps getting thrown around these days – this is a great example of putting it to work.

Pre-COVID, this type of report would have typically taken RDA years to produce. The urgency of this situation made it possible to achieve what would have previously been considered impossible. Furthermore, it was done entirely virtually. This is unprecedented for RDA, which has always relied on face-to-face meetings to progress its work. I think we've realised how much we can achieve even by meeting virtually.

Another positive was that the urgency of the situation forced us to focus on what was practical and applicable, instead of aiming for a perfect solution that’s ideal but theoretical. I can't see any negatives, apart from lots of lost sleep and a few extra grey hairs!


How would you describe the value of the international research collaboration facilitated by the RDA on this type of initiative?

Immeasurable. RDA brings together a broad group of data professionals across the world. The discussions and work that is done through RDA facilitates the convergence of ideas, thoughts and practices across the world. Members take these to their respective organisations and local networks and things get implemented. The shift it accomplishes on a global scale is huge – akin to turning the Titanic, a very difficult thing to do. Achieving a small change at this scale leads to a large impact in the long run.

One gap is that the RDA has insufficient membership from regions other than Europe, Americas and Australasia. To be truly global, we need to expand the membership in other regions.


What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?

When the conditions are right, the impossible becomes possible!


Interview by Lynn Elsey, Australian Research Data Commons