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Global alliance builds data sharing network

EU, US and Australia aim to create ‘internet’ of research data

Funders in Australia, the EU and the United States have launched the Research Data Alliance, in a determined effort to enhance science data sharing worldwide.

The alliance will seek to bring together working researchers with a plethora of existing national and global initiatives across all disciplines. It says it intends to develop global, interoperable data infrastructure and promote standards and practices to make it easier and faster for scientists to share, use and reuse data.

Speaking at the alliance’s inaugural plenary meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden, on 18 March, Neelie Kroes, EU commissioner for the digital agenda, said that the alliance would only work from the bottom up. “This revolution offers great new opportunities: for best results, they should not be imposed from outside, but with the ownership and collaboration of the scientific community,” she said.

Most of the RDA’s work will be done in several working groups, proposed by scientists themselves and open to any researcher willing to participate. At the time of writing, 16 groups had been proposed on topics ranging from the harmonisation of marine data to the preservation of e-infrastructure. The RDA Council has approved two working groups so far, as well as two interest groups, dealing with engagement and legal interoperability.

Working groups must come up with concrete results, such as guidelines or policy recommendations, within 12 to 18 months. The alliance seeks realistic short-term targets and encourages results that are applicable in a specific area, even though they may not apply broadly.

“There’s no magic standard that works for everything, so let’s start with what does work,” says Alan Blatecky, director of advanced cyber-infrastructure at the US National Science Foundation, which co-funds the RDA. “We want to stop talking about sharing data, and start doing it” by learning from researchers who “have a leg up” in the process, Blatecky adds.

The RDA draws much of its inspiration from the Internet Engineering Task Force, a large, open, global group created in 1986 that develops and promotes standards and practices to make the internet work better. The alliance aims to follow IETF’s “rough consensus” principle, which the latter once expressed as: “We reject kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.” Neither organisation has the mandate or intention to impose or police the standards they put forward.

In its build-up phase, the RDA is funded jointly by the Australian National Data Service, the European Commission and the US National Science Foundation. The founders say that other countries are interested in getting involved—in particular the G8+5 members, which include Brazil, China, India and South Africa.

A Commission spokesman told Research Europe that the EU’s contribution to the alliance would be about €8 million in the coming five years for the RDA’s European activities, through Framework 7’s International Collaboration on Research Data Infrastructure (iCordi). In the same period, the Commission will spend some €120m on related activities, besides possible programmes funded by member states.

The RDA is seeking legal status as an international organisation. Blatecky says it will probably remain a lean, virtual outfit. “This organisation has all its value in working groups, with a thin layer of administration to support them,” says Leif Laaksonen, the iCordi coordinator who is in charge of the RDA in the EU.

Laaksonen’s US counterpart Francine Berman, a computer scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state, says: “The RDA is emerging as a neutral place where people from different sectors and countries are talking to each other.”

The alliance says it will hold two plenary meetings per year; the next one will take place in September in Washington DC.

Originally published by Tania Rabesandratana on 11 April 2013 (Research Europe)

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