On Monday (3rd of September), I attended the Harnessing FAIR Data conference held at Queen Mary in conjunction with UCL and the Science and Engineering South consortium. The event launched with an opening talk from Prof. Pam Thomas – the Pro Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Warwick. Prof. Thomas spoke of her involvement in leading a task force on Open Research Data which will eventually culminate in a final report in early 2018. Whilst the details of the report are yet to be finalised, the talk raised pertinent questions about what will happen to the increasing amounts of openly available research data that the UK universities seek to generate. As one audience member pointed out, there is still a need for specialist software to process this data otherwise it will remain unusable to other researchers in the future. Questions are currently abound as to whether researchers’ data will form part of the REF submission but for the meantime, it will remain more of a gold standard. David Hartland followed by giving an overview of the Jisc funded FAIR data report and confirmed what many in the audience already largely suspected – the difficulties of what adherence to FAIR data principles means in practice.
Another lively talk was given by Dr. Peter Murray-Rust who provided a rallying cry to all researchers to get behind their readers. The fact remains that a vast amount of research can only be accessed via a pay wall. Murray-Rust made the point that closed access data kills especially in countries which do not readily have access to the latest scientific research. Plus, researchers face further problems trying to extract data from articles which continue to be blocked by publishers as a result of access restrictions. Other talks centred more on the individual projects that researchers ranging from doctoral to early career and established are undertaking. Prof. Paul Longley from UCL’s Consumer Data Research Centre provided another interesting discussion about big data analytics. Just think about how much data companies take from our loyalty cards as a way to understand our shopping habits and movements. But how can this be harnessed for the social good? Well, according to Prof. Longley, we might want to use this data to look at people’s mobility around the country. This was later followed by a wide range of researcher lightning talks about their uses of open data. Some disciplines like biology pose more difficulties than others, as Dr. Yannick Wurm from Queen Mary argued, because they are still considered a young data science.
The conference ended with a panel discussion chaired by Robert Kiley of the Wellcome Trust. The panel was interspersed by anecdotes from Dr. Paul Ayris and Prof. Henry Rzepa about their personal experiences of sharing data. Dr. Ayris felt very much that historians continue to be resistant to sharing data. Prof. Henry Rzepa also spoke of his work as a research chemist and how his research later become subject to scrutiny only to discover that there were two ways his results could be interpreted.
All in all, the conference provided enough food for thought about the opportunities and difficulties that lie ahead for making use of researchers’ data in both a FAIR and open way.