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03 Oct 2016

International Data Forum: Data Stories Session

By Fotis E. Psomopoulos - RDA EU Early Career  Grant – Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

International Data Forum was one of the three complementary events, together with SciDataCon and the RDA 8th Plenary,  held during the International Data Week, 11-17 September 2016, Denver (CO), a landmark event jointly organised by the Research Data Alliance, (RDA), CODATA, the Committee on Data of the International Council of Science (ICSU) and the ICSU World Data System (WDS ICSU).

Time        : Wednesday September 14th, 13:30 - 14:30 - Plenary Session
Location: Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, Denver, Colorado, US
URL           :

The Data Stories session of the International Data Forum in Denver, comprised of three stories; one was uplifting, showcasing the educational and inspirational capabilities of Open Data, one was a story of the administrative chaos that can be the result of bad design in Open Data platforms, and one was a sombering demonstration of how Open Data still cannot bring the expected impact in the humanitarian efforts. All stories however had a common theme; the impact of people to data, and the impact of data to people.

The importance of stories and communication was stressed out by Christine White, the Vice President of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners. She presented an uplifting story on how a 5th Grader Contest in New Jersey can provide essential guidelines in successful Science Communication. “Your research and work you do is critical in the sense that it’s like you have the cure for a disease and you keep it to yourself”, she stated. The communication needs to be immersive in order to create engaging stories and maximize impact. And this approach was clearly shown in the winning essays of the 5th Graders.

Jane Hunter, the Director of the eResearch Lab at the University of Queensland in Australia, provided some intriguing stories of citizen scientists in Australia and the role of people power in gathering data. Two of these stories focused on specific research questions, such as monitoring the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef using citizen photography and satellite imagery, and the mapping of bird species across Australia through the cataloguing of feathers. An interesting technical approach in the latter study was the use of social media (Instagram in particular) in gathering and annotating photos of feathers directly from citizen scientists. A more practical story, less scientific and more administrative, described the recent effort for the e-Census in Australia in 2016. In this particular case, and despite significant funding, effort and testing of the e-Census virtual platform, the system actually failed at a critical time; a definite example of a case failing to accommodate the RDA recommendations. Although more of a snafu rather than a serious problem, the story revealed three key points in designing platforms aiming for citizen scientists; (a) good marketing, so that timing issues and incentives can be better leveraged, (b) robustness and reliability of the platform, always taking into consideration the human factor, and (c) information feedback, because a simple error message may not always be as informative as one would prefer.

The last talk of the session was given by Unni Karunakara, Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and Former International President of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Switzerland. His story, although involving data, had a sombering focus on humanitarianism and how action and data interconnect in this context. Unni quickly established the defining characteristics of humanitarian action; humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. Although all equally important, particular focus regarding data is towards impartiality, as it is not only important to collect the data, but also to understand and know who we are collecting data from. In other words, the credibility of the data is crucial when deciding on a humanitarian action. Another obstacle is the extremely low utilization of data, openly shared by humanitarian organizations for several years so far. The willingness to share data is there, as well as the overall adherence to concepts championed by RDA, but there are still no incentives and no interest in using them. Having an Open Science policy doesn’t solve the problem, and living in the era of fear creates additional barriers.

These data stories, besides the actual stories, provided the audience with food for thought. First and foremost, data communication is an essential step in engaging people and maximizing impact, clearly outlining RDA is a key organization in setting up the standards and the recommendations in this direction. In that regard, pictorial representation of data is much more forceful than pure number listing. Another key point is that we need to identify a way of democratizing data gathering. The collaboration of citizen scientists with researchers can significantly increase the resolution and quality of information gathered, especially when combined with attractive incentives. Finally, a word of caution; in the era when algorithms rule, Big Data carry the inherent risk of forgetting the context. Simply dealing with data without considering the possible implications can be a sure way to create misconceptions and bias in the future.

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