eResearch Report 2017 - 2018 - Page 16

Dealing with the data
Key lessons
learned in building
a research database
As early as 2014, before data
was widely recognised as a
major challenge to research,
the Energy Research Centre
(ERC) realised they had a
data problem. The group
hired Wiebke Toussaint,
engineer and data scientist, to
manage their data dilemma.
Toussaint – with some help
from UCT eResearch – built
an energy data portal. Now,
after a five-year journey of
learning about research data
management for mediumsized research centres, she
has some advice for research
groups setting out on a
similar path.
“Diverse data assets – from
big data to small qualitative
surveys – play an important
role in scientific research, yet
many research centres lack
the capacity and technology
expertise to build data
ecosystems to manage their data
sets,” says Toussaint.
She advises that research centres,
before investing resources or
seeking funds to build a data
solution, consider a few key factors.
The first question for research groups to
ask is: What is the strategic value of data
in our institution?
1. Think strategically
The first question for research
groups to ask is: What is the
strategic value of data in our
institution? They need to decide
what role they want to play, as a
research group, in the national,
continental and global space in
terms of data.
Toussaint says there can be a
massive strategic advantage
in deciding to make data
management part of the group’s
mandate. “For instance, the
University of California, Irvine owns
a number of data sets that are used
globally for benchmarking. There’s
no reason our research groups
couldn’t do something similar.”
This is important to decide up
front, she says, because if you
wish to go this route, you should
plan at least five or 10 years into
the future, rather than simply a
year or two.
Toussaint advises research groups
to get expert strategic advice at this
early stage, to ensure that they have
considered all options and know
what they are working towards.
2. Map out the landscape
“Data sharing requires multiparty involvement, and the more
partners there are in the endeavour,
the greater the chance of future
sustainability,” says Toussaint.
She strongly advises against a
research group taking on such a
project alone. “If there is an existing
initiative, join it; otherwise, start
building partnerships.”
3. Be ready for a culture change
“Data tends to play a very strategic
role in a research centre, with many
different touchpoints. Changing the
way data is managed often involves
a component of organisational
change,” says Toussaint.

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