I’ve just been at a NERC data management workshop. I may well blog some more about it, but one thing I spent a lot of time repeating to lots of people was one of Bob Sutton’s mantras: “Strongly Defend Weakly Held Positions”.

There were (at least) two strands at the meeting where this mantra is particularly important, both in the context that we (the data management community, like everyone else) are trying to find our way forward in uncertain technical times - we know the science drivers are demanding interoperability, but doing so without strong constraints on what that actually means:

  1. As Chris Rusbridge pointed out, integrated science (a loosely defined phrase but which at least points to why interoperabilty matters) means that scientists will be using unfamiliar data, therefore someone (data curators and managers) must make data available for unfamiliar users. This means we’re often struggling to work out what needs to be communicated, how it can be communicated, and how to get data into differing toolsets, which brings us to
  2. The technical options available to support interoperabilility are evolving rapidly, funding is limited, and while potential usage is effectively infinite, actual usage will drive us forward.

Both of these lead to the necessity for a strategy which simultaneously makes progress while yielding ground when progress via a particular route is overtaken by progress via another route. However, we need to actually make progress, and it’s incumbent on those of us who have an overview of the options (scientific, social and technical) to provide leadership in terms of directions - and strongly defend those choices. But it’s just as incumbent on us to yield quickly and gracefully when we (inevitably) make some wrong calls. It’s also incumbent on us, individually and collectively, to recognise that sometimes it’s the mistakes we make - even the expensive and time consuming ones

  • that tell us how we should have done things, and sometimes doing something wrong is the only way to find out how to do it right!

As an aside, just in case I don’t follow up with more about the conference (and let’s face it, this blog is a bit stop and start), Chris’s point about unfamiliar users lead him to introduce to us the “fourth Rumsfield”: the unknown knowns. I rather like to think that leads to part of the job description for data management:

  • We exist to mitigate against the unknown knowns associated with the collection (or production) of data and it’s usage becoming known unknowns!