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A Community Fellow’s Take on the Data Help Desk

ESIP Community Fellow and M.S. student, Rose Borden, shares takeaways from the 2018 Data FAIR at AGU.

ESIP hosted the 2018 Data FAIR at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Annual Meeting last December. The Data FAIR provides researchers with opportunities to engage with informatics experts familiar with their scientific domain and learn about skills and techniques that will help further their research and make their data and software open and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable). Data FAIR activities have taken place at AGU in years past and will continue to take place at AGU and other meetings in the future.

The Data FAIR typically includes both a Data Help Desk, as well as workshops, and town halls. The Data Help Desk is a booth in the exhibit hall where conference attendees can come to ask data questions, including about data management issues they may have. ESIP staff, as well as volunteers affiliated with ESIP who have various areas of expertise, were there to answer the questions at the 2018 Help Desk. There were also tutorials of various data management tools throughout the week at the Help Desk, so there was always a lot going on. The AGU meeting is the largest geoscience-related conference in the world, with 28,000+ attendees this year and 26,000+ abstracts submitted. This makes it a great place to reach out to scientists to talk about data management.

At the Data Help Desk, Dr. Wade Bishop and I were there to help evaluate the current structure and flow in order to make recommendations to improve the format of future Data Help Desks. Dr. Bishop had also attended the Ecological Society of America (ESA) meeting earlier in the fall and collected some data there. The process of evaluation included observing the questions and interactions at the Data Help Desk, as well as inviting those who had a question answered to take a survey following the interaction. The survey asked about the question they had asked and whether they got a satisfactory answer, what specific data management needs they had for their work, their level of data management awareness and training before approaching the Data Help Desk, and what topics or formats they would like to see if they attended a data management training in the future.

Interestingly, the majority of the questions we got were along the lines of “What is data management?” or “What is ESIP?” I had not heard of ESIP until recently, so those questions did not surprise me. However, the fact that many of the attendees at AGU did not know what data management was tells me we have a lot more work to do to promote the importance of good data management practices in scientific research. In fact, probably many of those asking the question were aware of data management issues they had, and once the scope of data management was explained they began to see the value of what ESIP could offer in the form of resources and expert advice.

The number one need that scientists had was storing their data, as well as wanting to know about general data management principles. Other common needs were accessing data, data interoperability, and sharing their data. More than 75% of those who took the survey at AGU had not had any prior training in data management. However, most of them did express interest in future opportunities for data management training.

Since many of the attendees who stopped by were students, it might be a good idea for departments to offer data management training to their students along with other needed training in pedagogy, scientific communication, research methods and ethics, and communicating science to the public (#SciComm). There often seems to be less of an emphasis in science on things like this that fall outside the scope of simply doing research, and as a grad student in geology, I certainly would have appreciated some focus on them.

One of the things I noticed that might help with future iterations of the Data Help Desk would be to have more training/orientation with volunteers before the conference. This might also help those considering volunteering to feel more confident sharing their expertise with conference attendees. Another idea is to develop more handouts describing data management, since many of the attendees asked that question first.

Outside of my time at the Data Help Desk, I was able to go to other conference proceedings. I have been studying geology for 7 years, but this was my first time at an AGU meeting so I was excited to see what it was all about. My main area of interest is planetary geology, so I made sure to attend a few planetary sessions to see what is new and exciting in my field. There were also a number of talks and discussions around issues of equity and inclusion and sexual harassment in the earth sciences, which is one of the most important issues the community is working on right now. I was very glad to see the awareness being raised around these issues, as well as the emphasis on finding solutions and promoting actions that departments and individual scientists can take to move us forward on this. I am thankful for this opportunity to attend AGU, and I look forward to future meetings.

More about Rose: Rose is an MS student in the Information Science program at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She also recently completed an MS in Planetary Geology at UT. Her interest in information science was inspired by her experiences using GIS to map geologic features on Mars and the many datasets she encountered and used to complete that project. She hopes to use the connections made in the ESIP Fellows program to explore the different ways to connect earth science and information science. She also enjoys exploring and trying new things, participating in science outreach programs, baking for her family and friends, and reading. Rose is working with the Information Quality Cluster.