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Making the case for data reuse


Making the case for data reuse

Opening up research boosts the economy – and aids new discoveries

In May 2014, a ghost that haunted radio telescope data materialised for the first time. A fast, powerful burst of radio waves which had travelled billions of light years through space was picked up 'live' by the Parkes Radio Telescope—otherwise known as The Dish—in central New South Wales.

Lasting only milliseconds, astrophysicists think 'fast radio bursts' (FRBs) may signal extreme events in our universe such as the collapse of a neutron star to form a black hole.

Emily Petroff at Parkes

"These emissions encode information about what they have travelled through to reach us—about all the matter between where they occurred and here," says Emily Petroff, the Swinburne University PhD student who witnessed the new burst.

FRBs were first revealed in 2007 by American astronomers combing archival data from Parkes for unrelated information, though none had ever been intercepted live before. Emily and her team were the first to do so. The phenomenon lasted only a millisecond – but in that time may have given off as much energy as the Sun does in a whole day.

Yet no-one would know about them without access to the huge amounts of radio data accumulated by The Dish being opened up to international researchers.

New discoveries about our universe are always exciting. What is not yet known, however, is the exact reason why the FRBs happen, and how they are caused. These are questions still being analysed by astrophysicists – though Emily Petroff thinks it is only a matter of time before further bursts are recorded to help answer them. "We've set the trap," she says. "Now we just have to wait for another burst to fall into it."

Economic value of open research

The Parkes Radio Telescope is just another example of open or shared data being reused to come up with fascinating new research – sometimes completely unrelated to the aims of the original study.

A 2014 report commissioned by ANDS, Open Research Data, estimated that data curation and sharing is worth up to $5.5 billion annually to Australia. Of that figure, between $1.4 billion and $4.9 billion is yet to be realised, the authors calculated.

The report shows there is much to be gained for Australia by increasing access to and sharing data, through investing in infrastructure and framing the right policies to encourage such activity.

It also makes a strong case that a relatively small investment in data policy and infrastructure can lead to a significant increase in value to Australian innovation, research, and the broader economy.

"Research funders can realise both economic and scientific benefits from open research data, and there are a growing number of funders mandating open data," say the report authors. "Research institutions benefit from the enhanced visibility … that open data brings and from a reduced risk of inadvertently playing host to scientific fraud."

In 2008 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) began allowing unfettered use of its data, rather than selling access. A cost-benefit analysis of the provision of this ABS data by Professor John Houghton (also one of the authors of the Open Research Data report), showed that, while the Bureau lost the revenue it had previously made from selling its data, there were substantial savings in no longer needing to maintain a 'shopfront' for sales and related inquires. And the benefits to the Australian economy arising from the ABS making data freely available were likely to have outweighed the costs more than five times over, Houghton suggested, because the nation put that information to wider use. If that analysis is correct, the Australian Government would have gained substantially more from the tax revenue earned on the additional economic output than it lost on fee income.

Making research data freely available for reuse is a win-win for policy makers, the research community and the taxpayers that fund them.

Based on an original story by Science in Public.

Image: Emily Petroff at Parkes Telescope (courtesy of Emily Petroff, all rights reserved)