"Data on tap" - Interview with Mark Parsons, RDA Secretary General
"Data on tap" was originally published in the "Research Europe" Magazine, 9 February 2017 - Download the pdf or view the transcript below
The Research Data Alliance is trying to create a world where scientific data flows as freely as electricity. Eleni Courea talks to Mark Parsons, its outgoing chief.
Mark Parsons, the secretary-general of the Research Data Alliance, is a busy man. His latest automated email response reads: “Oh dear, I’m out again. February is crazy. I’m visiting the capitals of Russia, the United States, the UK, and the EU. After all, open data sharing can only help in these dire times.”
Parsons is stepping down after three years of heading the RDA, a community-driven organisation launched in 2013 to build the infrastructure needed to enable open data sharing. The RDA has the backing of the European Commission, and the US and Australian governments.
As the first head of RDA, Parsons’s job has been to get the organisation off the ground. “My vision was to define the vision,” he says. His initial activities included long discussions with Fran Berman—now the US lead of the RDA—to decide on the scope and purpose of the alliance.
Since then, the RDA has evolved into a community that “builds social and technical bridges that enable open data sharing” with the aim of “addressing the grand challenges of society”.
“Those are short, catchy phrases,” Parsons says, “good mission statement, vision statement things”, which are emblazoned across the RDA website. “But it’s an ongoing process. The bridges metaphor shows how we want to build something concrete that solves the problems faced by particular communities, machines, and cultures. We’re trying to communicate across all those differences.”
Those bridges are the infrastructure that makes data sharing and data-driven research possible. Parsons envisions that such infrastructure is developed and adopted by researchers that the RDA has roped together. “Open data policies are not enough,” he says. “Although the bare principles of open data have done a really good job, particularly in Europe, of raising the profile of data sharing, we need technical infrastructure to actually implement it.”
There are more than 80 working and interest groups in the RDA to tackle varying data infrastructure challenges—but the alliance’s nine-member secretariat has barely grown since it was founded. Yet the RDA’s membership community numbers close to 5,000, and the network now spans 118 countries.
The RDA is striving to become a global organisation, but this brings some logistical issues. The network hosts its membership at rotating plenary sessions every six months, which is a problem for researchers who aren’t so mobile. Another problem is technical capacity, Parsons says. “The RDA is hugely reliant on the internet and bandwidth, which is not as pervasive as it needs to be around the world.”
The alliance has strategies to overcome these difficulties, particularly when working in the developing world. It is making efforts to branch out to Africa, where its focus has been to help develop good open access policies—for example by getting involved in the creation of an open science policy platform coordinated by Codata, a scientific committee of the International Council for Science.
“Another strategy is making sure that you’re working on locally relevant issues and using existing networks,” Parsons says. For example, in partnership with Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, the RDA translated lessons from its protocol for wheat data to rice when its plenary moved to Japan and engaged more delegates from the Asian continent.
“We’re always trying to balance making sure that we stay connected to our core constituencies, which are in Europe, Australia and North America, and maintaining the RDA’s momentum,” Parsons says. But for its upcoming two plenaries, the alliance will focus its energies on the latter. All RDA plenaries so far have been hosted by high-income countries, so the alliance is planning to hold its second International Data Week somewhere in the developing world next autumn.
Parsons is reluctant to lay down a longer-term plan. “We only look a few years ahead, because trying to predict technology is a futile effort,” he says. “I like to quote Eisenhower—plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. It’s not so much the document as the ongoing process.” The same applies to his career—three years of leading the RDA is enough, he says. Parsons is intrigued by the prospect of doing more research on the underlying principles of data sharing and mediation. When asked to describe a world where the RDA is no longer needed, Parsons says that he hopes data sharing will evolve into a smooth, uninterrupted process that becomes as essential as water or power. He cites the example of the Internet Engineering Task Force, an open global community of engineers who strive to ensure the internet is functioning well: “Infrastructure, when it’s working, is transparent,” Parsons says. “You don’t notice electricity until it’s broken and the lights go out.”
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