by Mark A. Parsons
The Research Data Alliance implements data sharing infrastructure by building social and technical bridges across cultures, scales and technologies.
Research data are central to human understanding and a sustained, healthy society. Data provide the foundation for the evidence-based research that has advanced and transformed society in recent centuries. Data validate the theories that create the basis of human knowledge. Now we have bigger and more varied data than ever and huge societal challenges. Some say we have entered a new paradigm of research where data exploration is leading us to new theories and understanding rather than theories guiding our data collection . This new paradigm will create new social and economic opportunities. Much like the Internet evolved from an academic network to a global communication infrastructure that fundamentally changed commerce and employment, ready and rapid data access can create new forms of wealth and transform society as well as research. This transformation can only occur if there is the culture and technology of a supporting and adaptive global data infrastructure.
The Research Data Alliance (RDA, rd-alliance.org) formed in 2013 to accelerate this transformation. RDA is a global, community-based, member organisation,working to build the social and technical bridges that enable open sharing of data.
The bridge is an important metaphor. Bridges are critical to infrastructure. So with data infrastructure we seek to bridge and share data across technologies, scales, disciplines, and cultures to address the grand challenges of society. But building infrastructure is incredibly complex. It is not just pipes and wires, but also relationships connecting machines, people and organisations. If we consider how past infrastructures developed, it is clear that infrastructure evolves somewhat organically. It is never really designed or architected at the outset .
We have seen time and again how top-down, “build-it-and-they-will-come” systems do not realize their potential or simply fail. RDA strives to be more bottom-up, allowing anyone to join the organization if they agree to our basic principles of openness, balance and harmonization through a community-driven, consensus-based, non-profit approach. Members can work on whatever problem is important to them as long as it advances data sharing. We’re not trying to solve all the data problems. We focus on implementing data sharing solutions. We aim to balance a grass-roots approach with just enough guidance and process to succeed in implementing infrastructure.
RDA is also about people and the work they do. In less than two years, we have more than 2,500 members from Europe, the United States, Australia and many other countries. Members are mostly academics, but there is increasing representation from the government and private sectors (Figure 1). We also have about two-dozen Organisational Members including tech companies, libraries and regional efforts like the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and EUDAT. These organisations are key to ensuring the relevance and adoption of RDA products.
Figure 1: Distribution of 2,538 individual RDA members in 92 countries as of 3 December 2014.
All these people and organisations come together in short-term, tiger-team-style Working Groups and broader, more exploratory Interest Groups. Currently, 14 Working Groups and 31 Interest Groups are addressing myriad topics. Some groups are technical—addressing issues such as persistent identifiers and machine actionable rules and workflows. Others address social issues such as legal interoperability or repository certification. Some bridge the social and technical on issues like data citation or best practices for repositories, while others are specific to certain disciplines or domains like agriculture, oceanography, genomics, and history and ethnography.
Working Groups only exist for 12-18 months. At the end of which, they deliver outputs, which could be a particular specification, method or practice that improves data sharing. To be approved as a Working Group, the group must demonstrate it has members who actually plan to use what is developed. This helps focus the work and ensures relevance. Many groups are co-sponsored by partner organisations, including ORCID, DataCite, the Data Seal of Approval, CODATA, and the World Data System.
RDA members work at multiple scales from the global to the local. Implementation of outputs is inherently a local activity, but it is most relevant and impactful if it is done in a global context. So, in addition to the global RDA, there are local or regional RDAs. RDA/Europe includes all the European members in RDA and works to ensure that RDA is relevant to unique European needs. See for example the recent RDA/Europe report, The Data Harvest: How sharing research data can yield knowledge, jobs and growth .
In short, RDA is about implementing data infrastructure by people working together at all scales. It is an exciting opportunity, and it highlights the power of volunteer effort towards addressing grand challenges. RDA is clearly relevant to members of ERCIM who are encouraged to join RDA as Organisational Members and attend our next Plenary 9-11 March in San Diego.
Acknowledgements: Yolanda Meleco, RDA/US, provided very useful edits to this article.
 T. Hey, S. Tansley, and K. Tolle (eds): The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, Microsoft Research, 2009
 P.N. Edwards, S.J. Jackson, G.C. Bowker, C.P. Knobel: “Understanding Infrastructure: Dynamics, Tensions, and Design”, NSF. 2007 http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/49353
 F. Genova, H. Hanahoe, L. Laaksonen, C. Morais-Pires, P. Wittenburg and J. Wood: “The Data Harvest: How sharing research data can yield knowledge, jobs and growth”, RDA Europe, 2014.
Mark Parsons, Secretary General of the Research Data Alliance (RDA)
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA