Why not start by stopping to think: Where’s your data?

Posted by Annelie Rugg, Humanities CIO, UCLA Center for Digital Humanities. Data is a hot topic, not just in digital humanities, but throughout academia, as well as in medicine, commerce, public policy, etc. ‘Big data’, ‘deep data’, ‘metadata’, ‘data visualization’ appear in the news as well as the classroom and published research. Understanding, manipulating, interpreting, querying and presenting data is fast becoming a twenty-first century skill set, a competency in demand in academia and the workforce, and an essential bundle of learning outcomes for all of higher education. Those of us already in higher education recognize this, and many are deep in the data trenches. But many of us are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the topic. Others of us just don’t think of ‘data’ as being all that relevant to our research, teaching or learning. Unless our work has required us to become data experts, where do we start? And why bother? The answer to “Where do I start?” is “Start with what you know.” The answer to “Why bother?” is “Because you can’t work without your data”.

All of us have data. We all create or make use of computer-based files to do our work. Most of us probably don’t stop to think about that data, though we depend on it to function. But I will argue, why not start by stopping to think: Where’s your data? Where are your files stored? Which files would you most need to be able to keep working? And how can you be sure you can get to them? These are simple questions to ask, and relatively simple to answer. They are also an easy way to get more comfortable thinking about data, and understanding how to better use and manage it so you can better manipulate, interpret, query and present it in your academic and professional work.

As the technology partner for the humanities at UCLA, our Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) is dedicating this academic year to helping faculty, staff and students to stop, ask, and answer some simple, fundamental, but powerful questions about the data that matters to us. The purpose is twofold: First, to get everyone at CDH working together on an initiative that enables us to work across teams and learn about each others’ strengths. And second, to help move the needle humanities-wide on everyone’s comfort with, and understanding of, data.

Data experts and academics may argue that everyday working files are not ‘data’, or at least not in the sense meant when you hear and read about Big Data or data analysis. And they are right. But in asking ourselves and our colleagues to think about our critical working files and information, about where they are stored, and how they are organized so we can find and use them, we are beginning to think about some of the same concerns that data experts have — about access, storage and backup, discoverability, security, and use. And by thinking about what (data) matters to each of us individually in our work, we become aware of some of the key questions about data, we become familiar with how to manage data, and we begin to understand how and why data are relevant. Important. Precious. Vulnerable. Ours!

Objectives of this initiative

There are so many good reasons to undertake this initiative. Our objectives are to see the following happen:
•Get everyone in Humanities thinking consciously about data, and taking steps to better manage their own data.
•Raise faculty, student and staff awareness of the need to manage and protect one’s own data.
•Increase Division-wide knowledge of data management options and how to choose among them.
•Increase faculty, staff and student interaction with CDH staff around a digital issue that affects everyone.
•Cultivate awareness of and trust in CDH expertise for digital work.
•Engage everyone at CDH in a single initiative, promoting team cohesion and inter-group interaction.

Timeline for the initiative

“Where’s your data?” is an experiment in building IT team cohesion around a widely relevant technology-related topic. Any good experiment needs time, planning, discussion, reflection and analysis, documentation, and review. With the help of a small staff planning group that met over 6 weeks this summer, I have organized this initiative into three 10-week phases, kicking off in November 2015 and ending with a review/debrief in summer 2016.
•Phase I. Building awareness.
•Phase II. Identifying key needs.
•Phase III. Menu of options and available expertise.

Who is involved?

Every single CDH staff member, including student employees, will contribute to this initiative. And our hope is to involve as many of our colleagues as possible in thinking about their working data, and possibly doing something to ensure it is better organized, more easily accessed, or more readily secured. I’m taking great care to design the work so it fits naturally with what we all regularly do, in our multivariate partnerships and interactions with faculty, staff and students. In most cases, this means simply taking an extra few minutes at the right point in a conversation about a digital project or a technology consultation to ask, “Where’s your data?”. Depending on the answer, we go from there. Phase I of our multistage initiative has already kicked off; our initial task is for each CDH staff member to think about and inventory (a) What is the data that is most critical to my work, and (b) where is that data stored? Building awareness at home enables us to feel comfortable leading others to build awareness “out there”.

What happens at the end?

This is an experiment; the results are unknown. The hope is that we are able to document evidence of successfully meeting each of the objectives mentioned above. As the staff leader for CDH, my hope is also to learn as much as possible about getting our staff working better as a team, and whether this kind of year-long focused initiative involving every staff member is an effective way to do that. Regardless of what happens, we continue to build on the knowledge (successes and failures) and the partnerships (with each other and with our humanities colleagues). Depending on what we learn to be most interesting or important, we might consider these as possible next steps:
•CDH creates a menu of data/file management options for humanities projects;
•CDH publishes a white paper on what we have learned
•CDH presents what we have learned at a suitable conference
•CDH designs a Phase 2 “Where’s your data?” initiative focused on the next “step” along the data/file management learning curve (e.g., digital project data management for research and instruction).

Photo courtesy of Gillian Bailey, UCLA.

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