Community Actions to Preserve Research Data in Canada

It takes a research community to preserve its data.

Without leadership from a national institution for research data management and preservation (see this Blog’s Introduction), communities that have interests in research data in Canada have become essential in moving forward an agenda to build this needed infrastructure.  At this stage, the strategy for data in Canada has become reliant on community-level actions.  The diversity of domains, sectors, and jurisdictions with stakes in research data complicates efforts to mobilize a grassroots, bottom-up plan for action.  There have, however, been some recent community activities around data that are encouraging.

Libraries and Archives Canada (LAC) tapped into the cultural, heritage, and academic sectors to achieve community engagement in identifying basic principles and goals for a national digital information strategy.  The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) undertook the drafting of an application to the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) for research data management infrastructure.  As background support for its application, the steering committee for this initiative consulted widely across the scholarly research community, bringing together data interests from diverse research domains.  The Research Data Strategy Working Group (RDSWG), composed of representatives from organizations and agencies concerned about research data in Canada, sought ways to implement recommendations from the deadlocked National Consultation on Access to Scientific Research Data (NCASRD).  The work of this group contributed to the successful 2011 National Data Summit that attracted the participation of over 160 senior officials with interests in research data across sectors.

The Canadian Digital Information Strategy

LAC undertook a community-based consultation beginning in 2005 to develop a national digital information strategy.  Working with over 200 organizations from the public, private, and academic sectors, a National Summit was held in December 2006 bringing together representatives from these stakeholders to identify key components of a digital strategy.  Early in 2007, the Strategic Development Committee (SDC) was struck to synthesize the output of the Summit and to provide substantive input into a draft strategy.  Three sub-groups (Science and Research; Cultural Heritage; and Government Information) were formed to tackle this Committee’s workload.  The contributions of the Science and Research sub-group made the draft version of the digital strategy a valuable statement for and relevant to research data.  The resulting draft digital information strategy was released in the fall of 2007, which launched a public review that was conducted until early 2008.  In March 2010, stakeholders who contributed to the consultation were sent a copy of the final report entitled Canadian Digital Information Strategy: Final Report of Consultations with Stakeholder Communities 2005–2008, bringing closure to the process.

Federal inter-departmental politics intervened between 2008 and 2010, undermining the important community involvement that went into forming this strategy.  Industry Canada laid claims on the digital economy and perceived the national digital information strategy as treading on its turf.  The outcome of this internal political struggle surfaced in the May 10, 2010 announcement of National Consultations on a Digital Economy Strategy, made jointly by the then Minister of Industry (Tony Clement), the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages (James Moore), and the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development (Diane Finley).  This consultation was conducted online for only one month, drawing upon only a fraction of the community involvement in the digital information strategy.

While the politics over strategies between digital information and a digital economy undermined the eventual adoption of the Canadian Digital Information Strategy, the engagement of the community in shaping the LAC-developed strategy was very successful and demonstrated common ground among the diverse group of stakeholders that have interests in managing, providing access to, and preserving digital content.

A Proposal for a National Collaborative Research Data Infrastructure

The CARL Directors launched an initiative in June 2010 to prepare a proposal for a national collaborative research data infrastructure.  While the Canada Foundation for Innovation had yet to announce the program envelope for its next CARL Research Data Management Infrastructurefunding round, there was anticipation of a program that might support applications for a national platform.  The vision was to finance the development of a national network of research data services at contributing CARL member institutions, including ingest centres to work with researchers in receiving their data, staging repositories to assist researchers with the management of their data over the life of a project, and data repositories responsible for the long-term preservation of digital research data.  From the beginning of this initiative, the CARL Directors met with many stakeholders, seeking their endorsement for the proposal.  They achieved support from organizations representing other components of Canada’s research infrastructure: Canada’s high-speed optical research network (CANARIE), Canada’s high performance computing grid (Compute Canada), and the Canadian University Council of Chief Information Officers (CUCCIO).  They also held a meeting with researchers from several domains to identify their requirements of a national research data infrastructure.  Out of these discussions with fellow stakeholders, CARL built a network of supporters within the research community.

When CFI announced it funding program, it did not include a national platform competition.  This complicated the logistics of the CARL proposal.  The CFI program that was being run would require each university to make the CARL proposal a high priority among the other proposals on their campus.  In the end, not enough support could be garnered from campuses to compete in this funding round.  The politics of funding envelopes rather than inter-departmental turf prematurely ended this effort at building national research data services.  Nevertheless, the CARL Directors were successful in communicating their ideas and in building community support for this vision.

The Research Data Strategy Working Group’s National Data Summit

The phoenix rising out of the ashes of the National Data Archive consultation and NCASRD was the Research Data Strategy Working Group.  This informal group, without having financial backing, seeks to find ways of advancing the recommendations of the two earlier consultations.  With roots in a number of organizations and agencies for which research data are important, members in the RDSWG strive to keep one another informed about projects and opportunities that will push the research data agenda forward.  When the government signaled its support for open data in 2010, the RDSWG capitalized on this new direction by proposing to host a National Data Summit that would bring together senior officials to discuss the challenges around research data in Canada.  Funding doors opened as the RDSWG promoted the idea of such a Summit and by the spring of 2011 a program was put in place for September 2011.

The outcome of the National Data Summit was the widespread recognition that research data activities need to be coordinated in Canada.  The discussions in the Summit revealed many common issues across research domains and sectors, demonstrating the value of a forum for sharing and debating data issues.  The Summit participants recommended holding a similar event within eighteen months and endorsed formalizing a secretariat to support such a forum.  In the fall of 2012, the RDSWG reorganized itself into Research Data Canada and continues to develop its role as a national forum for data stewardship issues.

Lessons for the Research Data Community

Both the experience of the Canadian Digital Information Strategy caught in the crosshairs of inter-departmental politics and of CARL’s withdrawn CFI application provide important lessons.  Neither the level of community engagement in defining strategic directions nor its endorsement of such a course were exempt from an inter-departmental power grab.  Some political battles are difficult to anticipate; others fall into a consistent pattern.  After all, the Federal Minister who buried the Canadian Digital Information Strategy also dealt the deathblow to the 2011 Census mandatory long form, which would have produced one of Canada’s highly valuable digital information assets.  One lesson from this experience is to avoid turf battles between federal departments, unless Treasury Board is on your side.

Similarly, one cannot assume that innovative ideas, even ones that could accelerate Canada to the forefront of research data infrastructure, will trump local interests.  A lesson from the CARL experience is that funding to develop nationally shared services will face stiff competition from local interests, even though the national services may benefit those locally.  This is one situation where strong community intervention may be able to persuade local interests that national gains outweigh any perceived local loss.

The response to the National Data Summit and Research Data Canada shows that Canada’s research community is willing and eager to engage in activities that may shape strategies and plans around data management and preservation.  This undercurrent of support needs to be nurtured and channeled to achieve a national collaborative research data infrastructure.

The next essay looks at the strategic shift from a national institution to national infrastructure for research data in Canada.

[The opinions expressed in this Blog are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my institution.]

One Response to Community Actions to Preserve Research Data in Canada

  1. Wendy Watkins says:

    At the end of this section, I’m beginning to feel like Charlie Brown who is STILL willing to believe that Lucy will hold the football.

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