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Building data communities

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Building data communities

In February this year, the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) launched ‘23 (research data) Things’, a self-guided learning program for anybody interested in discovering more about research data or honing their existing skills.

Come November and around 1,500 people have taken part in 23 (research data) Things – or ‘23T’ for short – not just from Australia but from all over the world. Local groups have sprung up to support each other through the weekly tasks. Many groups meet regularly to discuss the ideas and concepts involved, with countless new connections made over tea and cake, or through virtual meetings and online forums.

The result is a community of individuals gaining knowledge and new professional connections – but it is also much more than that. The knowledge gained by participants also benefits Australian research institutions through added expertise and enthusiasm, in turn adding value to Australia’s research sector as a whole.

Data communities taking on the big challenges

Active data communities are vital to the wellbeing of our sector, providing a platform for discussion and evolution of ideas. Communities of practice have been core to the advancement of research infrastructure, for example when seeking agreement on standardisation of protocols, or keeping up to date with the issues in Australia and further afield.

“All of the world’s grand challenges — security, health, resilience — require global effort,” says Mark Parsons, Secretary General of the Research Data Alliance (RDA), an international community promoting data sharing and data-driven research.

“For example, how could one possibly reach a goal of zero poverty without understanding basic information about global crop production? The RDA provides a neutral place where people can get together to address these issues.”

Australia’s research capacity relies on upskilling, information exchange and evolution of best practices. The benefits can be particularly strong when people cross their natural work boundaries to create cross-discipline communities.

monash bioplatformsSteve Androulakis is the manager of the Monash Bioinformatics Platform, which provides bioinformatics support to Monash University and affiliated organisations. It is building a loosely linked community of bioinformaticians across all of Monash, available to help with specialist advice on experimental design or analysis.

“Cross-discipline working brings a fresh creativity and insight to our group,” he says. “We regularly see our scientists creating interactive apps and complex visualisations from data, while our engineering and statistics staff become engaged in the world of high impact medical research.  Building a community around a diversity of disciplines helps research deal with the ever-increasing complexity of data.” Data technicians from different fields are also coming together to attend Tech Talks or use Virtual Laboratories.

Data from the ground up

As well as the experts, new technology has enabled communities of amateur enthusiasts to contribute to Australian research data like never before. Organisations like Redmap and the Atlas of Living Australia use their websites to capture valuable data on Australian species direct from volunteers and hobbyists out in the field.

Huge collections of images, previously impossible to analyse by staff, are now being verified by an online community of so-called ‘citizen scientists’ from their living rooms. There are many other types of data communities besides these, including a host of research data-related communities supported by ANDS.

Issue 25 of Share celebrated ‘the people behind the data’: the individuals and teams whose expertise and enthusiasm makes everything in our sector happen. In this edition we look at what brings those people together into data communities, and the value this adds to Australia’s research system.

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