open.ed report


Lorna M. Campbell, a Digital Education Manager with EDINA and the University of Edinburgh, writes about the ideas shared and discussed at the open.ed event this week.


Earlier this week I was invited by Ewan Klein and Melissa Highton to speak at Open.Ed, an event focused on Open Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh.  A storify of the event is available here: Open.Ed – Open Knowledge at the University of Edinburgh.

“Open Knowledge encompasses a range of concepts and activities, including open educational resources, open science, open access, open data, open design, open governance and open development.”

 – Ewan Klein

Ewan set the benchmark for the day by reminding us that open data is only open by virtue of having an open licence such as CC0, CC BY, CC SA. CC Non Commercial should not be regarded as an open licence as it restricts use.  Melissa expanded on this theme, suggesting that there must be an element of rigour around definitions of openness and the use of open licences. There is a reputational risk to the institution if we’re vague about copyright and not clear about what we mean by open. Melissa also reminded us not to forget open education in discussions about open knowledge, open data and open access. Edinburgh has a long tradition of openness, as evidenced by the Edinburgh Settlement, but we need a strong institutional vision for OER, backed up by developments such as the Scottish Open Education Declaration.


I followed Melissa, providing a very brief introduction to Open Scotland and the Scottish Open Education Declaration, before changing tack to talk about open access to cultural heritage data and its value to open education. This isn’t a topic I usually talk about, but with a background in archaeology and an active interest in digital humanities and historical research, it’s an area that’s very close to my heart. As a short case study I used the example of Edinburgh University’s excavations at Loch na Berie broch on the Isle of Lewis, which I worked on in the late 1980s. Although the site has been extensively published, it’s not immediately obvious how to access the excavation archive. I’m sure it’s preserved somewhere, possibly within the university, perhaps at RCAHMS, or maybe at the National Museum of Scotland. Where ever it is, it’s not openly available, which is a shame, because if I was teaching a course on the North Atlantic Iron Age there is some data form the excavation that I might want to share with students. This is no reflection on the directors of the fieldwork project, it’s just one small example of how greater access to cultural heritage data would benefit open education. I also flagged up a rather frightening blog post, Dennis the Paywall Menace Stalks the Archives,  by Andrew Prescott which highlights the dangers of what can happen if we do not openly licence archival and cultural heritage data – it becomes locked behind commercial paywalls. However there are some excellent examples of open practice in the cultural heritage sector, such as the National Portrait Gallery’s clearly licensed digital collections and the work of the British Library Labs. However openness comes at a cost and we need to make greater efforts to explore new business and funding models to ensure that our digital cultural heritage is openly available to us all.

Ally Crockford, Wikimedian in Residence at the National Library of Scotland, spoke about the hugely successful Women, Science and Scottish History editathon recently held at the university. However she noted that as members of the university we are in a privileged position in that enables us to use non-open resources (books, journal articles, databases, artefacts) to create open knowledge. Furthermore, with Wikpedia’s push to cite published references, there is a danger of replicating existing knowledge hierarchies. Ally reminded us that as part of the educated elite, we have a responsibility to open our mindsets to all modes of knowledge creation. Publishing in Wikipedia also provides an opportunity to reimagine feedback in teaching and learning. Feedback should be an open participatory process, and what better way for students to learn this than from editing Wikipedia.

Robin Rice, of EDINA & Data Library, asked the question what does Open Access and Open Data sharing look like? Open Access publications are increasingly becoming the norm, but we’re not quite there yet with open data. It’s not clear if researchers will be cited if they make their data openly available and career rewards are uncertain. However there are huge benefits to opening access to data and citizen science initiatives; public engagement, crowd funding, data gathering and cleaning, and informed citizenry. In addition, social media can play an important role in working openly and transparently.

Robin Rice

James Bednar, talking about computational neuroscience and the problem of reproducibility, picked up this theme, adding that accountability is a big attraction of open data sharing. James recommended using iPython Notebook   for recording and sharing data and computational results and helping to make them reproducible. This promoted Anne-Marie Scott to comment on twitter:

@ammienoot: "Imagine students creating iPython notebooks... and then sharing them as OER #openEd"

“Imagine students creating iPython notebooks… and then sharing them as OER #openEd”

Very cool indeed.

James Stewart spoke about the benefits of crowdsourcing and citizen science.   Despite the buzz words, this is not a new idea, there’s a long tradition of citizens engaging in science. Darwin regularly received reports and data from amateur scientists. Maintaining transparency and openness is currently a big problem for science, but openness and citizen science can help to build trust and quality. James also cited Open Street Map as a good example of building community around crowdsourcing data and citizen science. Crowdsourcing initiatives create a deep sense of community – it’s not just about the science, it’s also about engagement.


After coffee (accompanied by Tunnocks caramel wafers – I approve!) We had a series of presentations on the student experience and students engagement with open knowledge.

Paul Johnson and Greg Tyler, from the Web, Graphics and Interaction section of IS,  spoke about the necessity of being more open and transparent with institutional data and the importance of providing more open data to encourage students to innovate. Hayden Bell highlighted the importance of having institutional open data directories and urged us to spend less time gathering data and more making something useful from it. Students are the source of authentic experience about being a student – we should use this! Student data hacks are great, but they often have to spend longer getting and parsing the data than doing interesting stuff with it. Steph Hay also spoke about the potential of opening up student data. VLEs inform the student experience; how can we open up this data and engage with students using their own data? Anonymised data from Learn was provided at Smart Data Hack 2015 but students chose not to use it, though it is not clear why.  Finally, Hans Christian Gregersen brought the day to a close with a presentation of Book.ed, one of the winning entries of the Smart Data Hack. Book.ed is an app that uses open data to allow students to book rooms and facilities around the university.

What really struck me about Open.Ed was the breadth of vision and the wide range of open knowledge initiatives scattered across the university.  The value of events like this is that they help to share this vision with fellow colleagues as that’s when the cross fertilisation of ideas really starts to take place.

This report first appeared on Lorna M. Campbell’s blog, Open World:

P.S. another interesting talk came from Bert Remijsen, who spoke of the benefits he has found from publishing his linguistics research data using DataShare, particularly the ability to enable others to hear recordings of the sounds, words and songs described in his research papers, spoken and sung by the native speakers of Shilluk, with whom he works during his field research in South Sudan.


Leading a Digital Curation ‘Lifestyle’: First day reflections on IDCC15

[First published on the DCC Blog, republished here with permission.]

Okay that title is a joke, but an apt one to name a brief reflection of this year’s International Digital Curation Conference in London this week, with the theme of looking ten years back and ten years forward since the UK Digital Curation Centre was founded.

The joke references an alleged written or spoken mistake someone made in referring to the Digital Curation lifecycle model, gleefully repeated on the conference tweetstream (#idcc15). The model itself, as with all great reference works, both builds on prior work and was a product of its time – helping to add to the DCC’s authority within and beyond the UK where people were casting about for common language and understanding in this new terrain of digital preservation, data curation, and – a perplexing combination of terms which perhaps still hasn’t quite taken off, ‘digital curation’ (at least not to the same extent as ‘research data management’). I still have my mouse-mat of the model and live with regrets it was never made into a frisbee.

Digital Curation Lifecycle

The Digital Curation Lifecycle Model, Sarah Higgins & DCC, 2008

They say about Woodstock that ‘if you remember it you weren’t really there’, so I don’t feel too bad that it took Tony Hey’s coherent opening plenary talk to remind me of where we started way back in 2004 when a small band under the directorship of Peter Burnhill (services) and Peter Buneman (research) set up the DCC with generous funding from Jisc and EPSRC. Former director Chris Rusbridge likes to talk about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ when describing long-term preservation, and Tony reminded us of the important, immediate predecessors of the UK e-Science Programme and the ground-breaking government investment in the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) that was already changing a lot of people’s lifestyles, behaviours and outlooks.

Traditionally the conference has a unique format that focuses on invited panels and talks on the first day, with peer-reviewed research and practice papers on the second, interspersed with demos and posters of cutting edge projects, followed by workshops in the same week. So whilst I always welcome the erudite words of the first day’s contributors, at times there can be a sense of, ‘Wait – haven’t things moved on from there already?’ So it was with the protracted focus on academic libraries and the rallying cries of the need for them to rise to the ‘new’ challenges during the first panel session chaired by Edinburgh’s Geoffrey Boulton, focused ostensibly on international comparisons. Librarians – making up only part of the diverse audience – were asking each other during the break and on twitter, isn’t that exactly what they have been doing in recent years, since for example, the NSF requirements in the States and the RCUK and especially EPSRC rules in the UK, for data management planning and data sharing? Certainly the education and skills of data curators as taught in iSchools (formerly Library Schools) has been a mainstay of IDCC topics in recent years, this one being no exception.

But has anything really changed significantly, either in libraries or more importantly across academia since digital curation entered the namespace a decade ago? This was the focus of a panel led by the proudly impatient Carly Strasser, who has no time for ‘slow’ culture change, and provocatively assumes ‘we’ must be doing something wrong. She may be right, but the panel was divided. Tim DiLauro observed that some disciplines are going fast and some are going slow – depending on whether technology is helping them get the business of research done. And even within disciplines there are vast differences –-perhaps proving the adage that ‘the future is here, it’s just not distributed yet’.

panel session

Carly Strasser’s Panel Session, IDCC15

Geoffrey Bilder spoke of tipping points by looking at how recently DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers, used in journal publishing) meant nothing to researchers and how they have since caught on like wildfire. He also pointed blame at the funding system which focuses on short-term projects and forces researchers to disguise their research bids as infrastructure bids – something they rightly don’t care that much about in itself. My own view is that we’re lacking a killer app, probably because it’s not easy to make sustainable and robust digital curation activity affordable and time-rewarding, never mind profitable. (Tim almost said this with his comparison of smartphone adoption). Only time will tell if one of the conference sponsors proves me wrong with its preservation product for institutions, Rosetta.

It took long-time friend of the DCC Clifford Lynch to remind us in the closing summary (day 1) of exactly where it was we wanted to get to, a world of useful, accessible and reproducible research that is efficiently solving humanity’s problems (not his words). Echoing Carly’s question, he admitted bafflement that big changes in scholarly communication always seem to be another five years away, deducing that perhaps the changes won’t be coming from the publishers after all. As ever, he shone a light on sticking points, such as the orthogonal push for human subject data protection, calling for ‘nuanced conversations at scale’ to resolve issues of data availability and access to such datasets.

Perhaps the UK and Scotland in particular are ahead in driving such conversations forward; researchers at the University of Edinburgh co-authored a report two years ago for the government on “Public Acceptability of Data Sharing Between the Public, Private and Third Sectors for Research Purposes,” as a pre-cursor to innovations in providing researchers with secure access to individual National Health Service records linked to other forms of administrative data when informed consent is not possible to achieve.

Given the weight of this societal and moral barrier to data sharing, and the spread of topics over the last 10 years of conferences, I quite agree with Laurence Horton, one of the panelists, who said that the DCC should give a particular focus to the Social Sciences at next year’s conference.

Robin Rice
Data Librarian (and former Project Coordinator, DCC)
University of Edinburgh


Open up! On the scientific and public benefits of data sharing

Research published a year ago in the journal Current Biology found that 80 percent of original scientific data obtained through publicly-funded research is lost within two decades of publication. The study, based on 516 random journal articles which purported to make associated data available, found the odds of finding the original data for these papers fell by 17 percent every year after publication, and concluded that “Policies mandating data archiving at publication are clearly needed” (

In this post I’ll touch on three different initiatives aimed at strengthening policies requiring publicly funded data – whether produced by government or academics – to be made open. First, a report published last month by the Research Data Alliance Europe, “The Data Harvest: How sharing research data can yield knowledge, jobs and growth.”  Second, a report by an EU-funded research project called RECODE on “Policy Recommendations for Open Access to Research Data”, released last week at their conference in Athens.  Third, the upcoming publication of Scotland’s Open Data Strategy, pre-released to attendees of an Open Data and PSI Directive Awareness Raising Workshop Monday in Edinburgh.

Experienced so close together in time (having read the data harvest report on the plane back from Athens in between the two meetings), these discrete recommendations, policies and reports are making me just about believe that 2015 will lead not only to a new world of interactions in which much more research becomes a collaborative and integrative endeavour, playing out the idea of ‘Science 2.0’ or ‘Open Science’, and even that the long-promised ‘knowledge economy’ is actually coalescing, based on new products and services derived from the wealth of (open) data being created and made available.

‘The initial investment is scientific, but the ultimate return is economic and social’

John Wood, currently the Co-Chair of the global Research Data Alliance (RDA) as well as Chair of RDA-Europe, set out the case in his introduction to the Data Harvest report, and from the podium at the RECODE conference, that the new European commissioners and parliamentarians must first of all, not get in the way, and second, almost literally ‘plan the harvest’ for the economic benefits that the significant public investments in data, research and technical infrastructure are bringing.

CaptureThe report’s irrepressible argument goes, “Just as the World Wide Web, with all its associated technologies and communications standards, evolved from a scientific network to an economic powerhouse, so we believe the storing, sharing and re-use of scientific data on a massive scale will stimulate great new sources of wealth.” The analogy is certainly helped by the fact that the WWW was invented at a research institute (CERN), by a researcher, for researchers. The web – connecting 2 billion people, according to a McKinsey 2011 report, contributed more to GDP globally than energy or agriculture. The report doesn’t shy away from reminding us and the politicians it targets, that it is the USA rather than Europe that has grabbed the lion’s share of economic benefit– via Internet giants Google, Amazon, eBay, etc. – from the invention of the Web and that we would be foolish to let this happen again.

This may be a ruse to convince politicians to continue to pour investment into research and data infrastructure, but if so it is a compelling one. Still, the purpose of the RDA, with its 3,000 members from 96 countries is to further global scientific data sharing, not economies. The report documents what it considers to be a step-change in the nature of scientific endeavour, in discipline after discipline. The report – which is the successor to the 2010 report also chaired by Wood, “Riding the Wave: How Europe can gain from the rising tide of scientific data,” celebrates rather than fears the well-documented data deluge, stating,

“But when data volumes rise so high, something strange and marvellous happens: the nature of science changes.”

The report gives examples of successful European collaborative data projects, mainly but not exclusively in the sciences, such as the following:

  • Lifewatch – monitors Europe’s wetlands, providing a single point to collect information on migratory birds. Datasets created help to assess the impact of climate change and agricultural practices on biodiversity
  • Pharmacog – partnership of academic institutions and pharmaceutical companies to find promising compounds for Alzheimer’s research to avoid expensive late-stage failures of drugs in development.
  • Human Brain Project – multidisciplinary initiative to collect and store data in a standardised and systematic way to facilitate modelling.
  • Clarin – integrating archival information from across Europe to make it discoverable and usable through a single portal regardless of language.

The benefits of open data, the report claims, extends to three main groups:

  • to citizens, who will benefit indirectly from new products and services and also be empowered to participate in civic society and scientific endeavour (e.g. citizen science);
  • to entrepeneurs, who can innovate based on new information that no one organisation has the money or expertise to exploit alone;
  • to researchers, for whom the free exchange of data will open up new research and career opportunities, allow crossing of boundaries of disciplines, institutions, countries, and languages, and whose status in society will be enhanced.

‘Open by Default’

If the data harvest report lays out the argument for funding open data and open science, the RECODE policy recommendations focus on what the stakeholders can do to make it a reality. The project is fundamentally a research project which has been producing outputs such as disciplinary case studies in physics, health, bioengineering, environment and archaeology. The researchers have examined what they consider to be four grand challenges for data sharing.

  • Stakeholder values and ecosystems: the road towards open access is not perceived in the same way by those funding, creating, disseminating, curating and using data.
  • Legal and ethical concerns: unintended secondary uses, misappropriation and commercialization of research data, unequal distribution of scientific results and impacts on academic freedom.
  • Infrastructure and technology challenges: heterogeneity and interoperability; accessibility and discoverability; preservation and curation; quality and assessibility; security.
  • Institutional challenges: financial support, evaluating and maintaining the quality, value and trustworthiness of research data, training and awareness-raising on opportunities and limitations of open data.

Capture1RECODE gives overarching recommendations as well as stake-holder specific ones, a ‘practical guide for developing policies’ with checklist for the four major stakeholder groups: funders, data managers, research institutions and publishers.

‘Open Changes Everything’

The Scottish government event was a pre-release of the  open data strategy, which is awaiting final ministerial approval, though in its final draft, following public consultation. The speakers made it clear that Scotland wants to be a leader in this area and drive culture change to achieve it. The policy is driven in part by the G8 countries’ “Open Data Charter” to act by the end of 2015 on a set of five basic principles – for instance, that public data should be open to all “by default” rather than only in special cases, and supported by UK initiatives such as the government-funded Open Data Institute and the grassroots Open Knowledge Foundation.


Improved governance (or public services) and ‘unleashing’ innovation in the economy are the two main themes of both the G8 charter and the Scotland strategy. The fact was not lost on the bureaucrats devising the strategy that public sector organisations have as much to gain as the public and businesses from better availability of government data.

The thorny issue of personal data is not overlooked in the strategy, and a number of important strides have been taken in Scotland by government and (University of Edinburgh) academics recently on both understanding the public’s attitudes, and devising governance strategies for important uses of personal data such as linking patient records with other government records for research.

According to Jane Morgan from the Digital Public Services Division of the Scottish Government, the goal is for citizens to feel ownership of their own data, while opening up “trustworthy uses of data for public benefit.”

Tabitha Stringer, whose title might be properly translated as ‘policy wonk’ for open data, reiterated the three main reason for the government to embrace open data:

  • Transparency, accountability, supporting civic engagement
  • Designing and delivering public services (and increasingly digital services)
  • Basis for innovation, supporting the economy via growth of products & services

‘Digital first’

The remainder of the day focused on the new EU Public Service Information directive and how it is being ‘transposed’ into UK legislation to be completed this year. In short, the Freedom of Information and other legislation is being built upon to require not just publication schemes but also asset lists with particular titles by government agencies. The effect of which, and the reason for the awareness raising workshop is that every government agency is to become a data publisher, and must learn how to manage their data not just for their own use but for public ‘re-users’. Also, for the first time academic libraries and other ‘cultural organisations’ are to be included in the rules, where there is a ‘public task’ in their mission.

‘Digital first’ refers to the charging rules in which only marginal costs (not full recovery) may be passed on, and where information is digital the marginal cost is expected to be zero, so that the vast majority of data will be made freely available.

keep-calm-and-open-data-11Robin Rice
EDINA and Data Library




Data and ethics

As an academic support person, I was surprised to find myself invited onto a roundtable about ‘The Ethics of Data-Intensive Research’. Although as a data librarian I’m certainly qualified to talk about data, I was less sure of myself on the ethics front – after all, I’m not the one who has to get my research past an Ethics Review Board or a research funder.

The event was held last Friday at the University of Edinburgh as part of the project Archives Now: Scotland’s National Collections and the Digital Humanities, a knowledge exchange project funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This event attracted attendees across Scotland and had as its focus “Working With Data“.

I figured I couldn’t go wrong with a joke about fellow ‘data people’ with an image from flickr that we use in our online training course, MANTRA.


‘Binary’ by Xerones on Flickr (CC-BY-NC)

Appropriately, about half the people in the room chuckled.

So after introducing myself and my relevant hats, I revisited the quotations I had supplied on request for the organiser, Lisa Otty, who had put together a discussion paper for the roundtable.

“Publishing articles without making the data available is scientific malpractice.”

This quote is attributed to Geoffrey Boulton, Chair of the Royal Society of Edinburgh task force which published Science as an Open Enterprise in 2012. I have heard him say it, if only to say it isn’t his quote. The report itself makes a couple of references to things that have been said that are similar, but are just not as pithy for a quote. But the point is: how relevant is this assertion for scholarship that is outside of the sciences, such as the Humanities? Is data sharing an ethical necessity when the result of research is an expressive work that does not require reproducibility to be valid?

I gave Research Data MANTRA’s definition of research data, in order to reflect on how well it applies to the Humanities:

Research data are collected, observed, or created, for the purposes of analysis to produce and validate original research results.

When we invented this definition, it seemed quite apt for separating ‘stuff’ that is generated in the course of research from stuff that is the object of research; an operational definition, if you will. For example, a set of email messages may just be a set of correspondences; or it may be the basis of a research project if studied. It all depends on the context.

But recently we have become uneasy with this definition when engaging with certain communities, such as the Edinburgh College of Art. They have a lot of digital ‘stuff’ – inputs and outputs of research, but they don’t like to call it data, which has a clinical feel to it, and doesn’t seem to recognise creative endeavour. Is the same true for the Humanities, I wondered? Alas, the audience declined to pursue it in the Q&A, so I still wonder.

“The coolest thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else.”                          – Rufus Pollock, Cambridge University and Open Knowledge Foundation, 2008

My second quote attempted to illustrate the unease felt by academics about the pressure to share their data, and why the altruistic argument about open data doesn’t tend to win people over, in my experience. I asked people to consider how it made them feel, but perhaps I should have tried it with a show of hands to find out their answers.

Information Wants to Be Free

Quote by John Perry Barlow, image by Robin Rice

I swiftly moved on to talk about open data licensing, the choices we’ve made for Edinburgh DataShare, and whether offering different ‘flavours’ of open licence are important when many people still don’t understand what open licences are about. Again I used an image from MANTRA (above) to point out that the main consideration for depositors should be whether or not to make their data openly available on the internet – regardless of licence.

By putting their outputs ‘in the wild’ academics are necessarily giving up control over how they are used; some users will be ‘unethical’; they will not understand or comply with the terms of use. And we as repository administrators are not in a position to police mis-use for our depositors. Nevertheless, since academic users tend to understand and comply with scholarly norms about citing and giving attribution, those new to data sharing should not be unduly alarmed about the statement illustrated above. (And DataShare provides a ‘suggested citation’ for every data item that helps the user comply with the attribution requirements.)

Since no overview of data and ethics would be complete without consideration given to confidentiality obligations of researchers towards their human subjects, I included a very short video clip from MANTRA, of Professor John MacInnes speaking about caring for data that contain personally identifying information or personal attributes.

YouTube Preview Image

For me the most challenging aspect of the roundtable and indeed the day, was the contribution by Dr Anouk Lang about working with data from social media. As an ethical researcher one cannot assume that consent is unnecessary when working with data streams (such as twitter) that are open to public viewing. For one thing, people may not expect views of their posts outside of their own circles – they treat it as a personal communication medium. For another they may assume that what they say is ethereal and will soon be forgotten and unavailable. A show of hands indicated only some of the audience had heard of the Twitter Developers and API, or Storify, which can capture tweets and other objects in a more permanent web page, illustrating her point.

While this whole area may be more common for social researchers – witness the Economic and Social Research Council’s funding of a Big Data Network over several years which includes social media data – Anouk’s work on digital culture proves Humanities researchers cannot escape “the plethora of ethics, privacy and risk issues surrounding the use (and reuse) of social media data.” (Communication on ESRC Big Data Network Phase 3.)

Robin Rice
Data Librarian