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Research Data: One of Our Most Important Assets

If you look around you, you will see that we are swimming, possibly drowning, in data. It’s clogging up our mail boxes, taking up space on our hard drives and bookshelves, and engulfing us whenever we make a simple Internet search. With the information and communications technology available to us in this age of data and information overabundance, it might surprise some to discover that there is still a dire need for organizations like the CGIAR to able to access research data, so that it can be reused in different ways and possibly be incorporated into future research. As it is, not enough attention is being given to the creation and management of data.

If CGIAR Centers are to obtain the maximum return on their research investments, they need to regard data assets in the same way as they do their other assets: people, property, funds, etc. One man who strongly supports this view is Mir Abdul Matin, who was instrumental in introducing and implementing the data management policy and procedures in place at the International Water Management Institution (IWMI).

“Organizations like the CGIAR need to store and manage their data properly so that it can be used beyond the initiatives that generated its creation,” says Matin, who oversees IWMI’s Data Management Unit. “A data management policy can give Centers more options for the data generated by researchers.”

Reluctance to share data

Researchers at Centers are often reluctant to share the data in their custody with others. Many feel that making their data available would enable someone else to use it to generate reports and papers without fully understanding the context of the data source and collection, or without proper acknowledgement, or possibly before they have had an opportunity to use the data for their own reports.

Management buy-in

The first thing Matin did upon taking up his post at IWMI was to get management’s go-ahead to adopt a data management strategy and the procedures necessary for its implementation.

As he explains, “At the beginning, I worked with management, senior researchers and team leaders to adopt a policy and procedures.  It helped that the Director General and management staff were aware of the loss of data and its repercussions, as top level support is the first critical step for success.”

The importance of recognition

Even though researchers eventually saw the benefit of developing a culture of sharing, they were still somewhat hesitant to embrace the idea formally, and not just from the point of view of accreditation. Some felt that the procedures would impose an extra burden on them: extra work that might not be appreciated or even acknowledged. At that point, the time allocated for research work didn’t include a provision for data management procedures – and sharing data involves extra documentation and the possible preparation of metadata.

Consequently, IWMI changed its employee performance appraisals to give credit for data management. So staffs now feel appreciated for adhering to the Center’s procedures.

A new culture of data sharing

As a result of the Center’s data management policy, all IWMI projects that were completed in 2009 have either submitted or are in the process of submitting their data sets to a central repository. It is now possible to access the data sets through two data portals (http://dw.iwmi.org and http://www.iwmidsp.org).  Last year, each portal received more than 2000 visitors from 400 organizations. Although the portals are available to the public, accessibility depends on the rights attached to the individual data sets.

Data sharing at other Centers

Last year, CGIAR data managers held a meeting in Rome, where they recommended some general principles and issues for data management to be adopted by all CGIAR Centers. The policy that Matin implemented at IWMI stemmed from these discussions and recommendations, and also drew some ideas from the data management policy in place at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF). Other Centers have data management guidelines in place but few have data management procedures.

“Centers need someone in management who understands the importance of data management; someone who is willing to take the initiative to pursue it,” says Matin.

What’s not to understand about making the most of your investments?

N.B. The Triple-A Framework developed by the ICT-KM Program seeks to help CGIAR Centers/Programs and their scientists decide on the level of Availability, Accessibility and Applicability (AAA) they want for their research outputs, and also the pathways with which to turn these outputs into International Public Goods. The CGIAR is also part of the CIARD, a multi-partner initiative that supports opening access to research results.