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24 Jun 2016

RDA: Rethinking What Data Is

It’s true that RDA does many things that are of great pragmatic value – developing standards, detailing best practices, supporting the nitty-gritty technical work to make data shareable.  But behind or beyond those very valuable missions, I see RDA, through its Interest and Working Groups, as doing nothing less than rethinking what data is.  Thanks to the Data Fabric Interest Group, for example, it’s now possible to understand that data is less of a thing and more of a pattern of distributed but interwoven things, along with the work and technologies that weaves them together into the thing we call data.  Overall, RDA is laying the practical and theoretical groundwork for reconceptualizing “data” as less of a noun and more of a verb – something that’s always becoming something else, become more of itself, developing its own potentials and yet at the same time demanding all manner of attentive, active care and feeding from its producers and users.

That’s RDA’s value in general. More particularly, for us in the digital empirical humanities, participating in RDA has taught us to think in new ways about our own data – what it is, what it could become in the future, what it needs us to do to realize its potentials.  Even though we've learned that qualitative data poses many different demands than the kinds of data that most of RDA deals with, being members of RDA has provided us with the kind of conceptual vocabulary, practices, and habits that we have brought into our own work. 

One great example of this is how we adopted the outcomes of the Practical Policies Working Group, incorporating those (with the help of RDA funding) into our new Drupal-based digital humanities platform (the Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography).  And thanks in part to that, we were recently awarded an NSF grant for a two-year research project that compares air quality governance styles in six different cities, and develops an archive of interviews with scientists, documents, and related kinds of qualitative data to support our analyses.  Being able to show that we had an innovative, carefully articulated data management plan based on a new digital platform developed through our participation in RDA and using RDA outcomes was undoubtedly a factor in our proposal’s eventual success.

Mike Fortun, co-Chair of the Digital Practices in History and Ethnography Interest Group and Associate Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Insititute




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