Data At Risk
The March 2011 Scholarly Communication WG meeting, sponsored by IRSS/Odum, UNC Press, and the SILS Metadata Research Center
Elizabeth Griffin, Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Victoria, BC, Canada; and Chair of the CODATA Data At Risk Task Group (DARTG): http://purl.org/codata/dartg. (Biographical note follows below the abstract.)
Science relies heavily, often crucially, upon recorded measurements (“observational data”) as well as on laboratory and theoretical facts (“laboratory data"). The furtherance of knowledge, achieved through progress in research, depends upon efficient access to all those data. Modern research requires data to be digital, but only new experiments and measurements fulfill that requirement. In some sciences - particularly Earth sciences - investigations of long-term trends are now regarded as essential, and they have to depend substantially upon measurements that were made before the present era of digital-everything. Those earlier, non-digital data may be on photographic film or plates, magnetic tapes, punched paper tape, paper or other paper artifacts. But those kinds of physical media deteriorate - rapidly so if not correctly stored - so the preservation of the data which they record cannot be assured. Nor can the data be easily accessed, or shared by their research communities.
All digital data are in some danger of loss through erasure, software or hardware changes or acts of vandalism, but the fact that non-digital data cannot be entirely copied adds quite a different risk factor. Furthermore, the techniques employed to gather those historic data can have grown sufficiently unfamiliar that specialist skills are needed to recover them fully -- and some of those skills are getting scarce. When difficulties in accessing those historic data then become interpreted as lack of interest, the records themselves face a real danger of loss through human indifference, or at best through benign neglect.
Many scientists are aware of these problems, but have little exact knowledge concerning the locations or the amounts of data in their own fields which are “at risk.” Before rescue plans can be implemented, we therefore need to quantify the challenge. The international Committee on Data for Science & Technology (CODATA) recently approved a new Task Group to prepare an Inventory of “Data At Risk”. The session will discuss some of the problems which the Task Group faces, and will outline the actions which it plans to follow. By way of illustration of the undeniable value of certain historical data for modern scientific problems, the session will describe an attempt to measure the concentration of ozone in the Earth's stratosphere by analyzing Astronomy's almost abandoned photographic observations of stellar spectra.
Dr. Elizabeth Griffin has a first degree in Astronomy, and trained as a stellar spectroscopist at Cambridge (UK) for her Ph.D. She specializes in binary stars which show “composite” spectra, and has developed a method to determine the masses of the component stars quite precisely. Her early post-doctoral work involved extensive use of photography, thus qualifying her to lead an International Astronomical Union Working Group on “Preservation and Digitization of Photographic Plates”. She now lives and works in Victoria, BC.