Juan Bicarregui

Juan Bicarregui

Last updated on 12 October 2017

I am writing this blog in the departure lounge at Montreal Airport whilst waiting for my flight back from the RDA Plenary meeting. RDA, the Research Data Alliance, is an international initiative that aims to build the social and technical bridges that enable open sharing of data. The RDA Plenaries, held each 6 months, attract about 500 people and provide an opportunity for people to come together to work on topics of common interest that they define themselves.

Having been to all ten Plenaries, I consider myself to be a bit of an old hand, but yet again I found this meeting as invigorating as it was exhausting.  Every session, whether it was a Birds of a Feather getting together for the first time to look for areas of common interest around a broad theme, or an Interest Group setting a research agenda for a particular topic, or a Working Group focused on a specific task, was filled with energy and enthusiasm as the participants dived into a discussion on their favorite subject.

This time, I concentrated on attending as many sessions as I could on Persistent Identifiers as we are just about to begin a H2020 project on this subject. There were four sessions on different aspects of PIds.  The Working Group on Kernel Information for PIds is working on defining some basic metadata to associate closely with PIds to enable high speed filtering of large numbers of PIds. The BoF on use of PIds in Data Management Records discussed how to use PIds for active records of working data.  The BoF on Persistent Ids for Instruments were looking to expand the use of PIds for instruments and equipment, and the general PId Interest Group were considering PIds for Organisations, Software, Grants, just about anything.  They were also looking forward to the next PIDapalooza in Girona in January. All this activity shows that there is something to the “hourglass” metaphor which presents PIds as the neck of the hourglass of data management, in the way that IPs are the neck of the  hourglass for the Internet Protocol.  Who would have thought that there could be so much to say about simple identifiers?

I attended two sessions on Data Citation, one reviewing progress in the two years since the RDA recommendation on Data Citation of Evolving Data and the other on Data Citation Metadata Elements discussing what should be included in a data citation, and a session on Open Data Policies and another on International Coordination of Research Networks. As ever, there were dozens of other sessions that I would have liked to attend but could not because of clashes.  With about 8 parallel sessions in each time slot, clashes are inevitable. But then again, this adds to the buzz at coffee breaks where people are always exchanging views on what had happened in different sessions.

A very simple tool was provided for each session that was used very effectively by some groups. On the web page that described each session was a link to a GoogleDoc that participants could use for instantly sharing comments and recording notes during the session. In these lively sessions, there is not always of chance for everyone to have their say, so this was a way for participants to make points and have them recorded without consuming valuable air time.

The opening keynote by Yoshua Bengio on Deep Learning for Data Driven AI was quite inspirational as it highlighted a whole range of potential applications that could come from machine processable open data. From to speech and image recognition to autonomous vehicles and even autonomous weapons, Yoshua provoked the audience to consider the implications of the fact that machines, that have for some time surpassed humans in physical capabilities, will soon also surpass us in intellectual capabilities. I’ve seen enough science fiction films to know that this doesn’t always bode well!

RDA continues to grow and attract active participation. The organisation now has 88 Groups running and boasts over 6000 members from 130 countries. On the organisational side of RDA, the current hot topic is around how to professionalise “the Business of RDA” to support the growing community, whilst keeping “the Work of RDA” flexible enough to meet the participants needs. Addressing this is the challenge for the new temporary Secretary General, Ingrid Dillo from DANS in the Netherlands, who has the daunting task of delivering a new Strategy for RDA over the next 6 months. 

I also learned by direct experience that Montreal is a beautiful city. To my astonishment, we had very warm and sunny weather throughout the week. Not at all matching the stereotypical preconceptions I had of Canada before this, my first visit. I’m not sure whether Plenary 11 in Berlin in March will be able match this aspect of the meeting.

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