Endangered Data Week at the University of Maryland

This post is one of several we are publishing about this year’s Endangered Data Week. This contribution comes from Joseph Koivisto, Systems Librarian at the McKeldin Library of the University of Maryland.

At the University of Maryland, Endangered Data Week (EDW) is less of an event and more of a triathlon. This year’s events featured three events held at the University Libraries and surrounding environs over the course of two weeks. Collectively, the events gave university staff, faculty, and students — graduate and undergraduate — a sprinting tour of the many issues that surround endangered data as a topic.

Working as a partnership between the University Libraries  and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, both Purdom Lindblad and I coordinated these events with the intention of keeping libraries central to the overall tone and tenor of our EDW activities. As the values of openness, accessibility, user-centered services, and activism are core to both libraries and EDW, we felt that the University Libraries would not only be an obvious physical home for our activities, but would also help to frame our conversations on the sometimes uncool topics of data preservation, resource description, and other activities that serve a maintenance role in the overall data landscape. Also central to our planning was the belief that EDW is necessarily an interdisciplinary event and therefore required that we prominently feature diverse disciplinary voices.

In short, we set ourselves a fairly high bar.

The first event of the week was our interdisciplinary panel, “What Counts as Data?” For this panel, our speakers included:

  • Angus Murphy (UMD Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture)
  • Catherine Knight-Steele (UMD Department of Communications and director of the African American History, Culture, and Digital Humanities program)
  • Jen Serventi (Office of Digital Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities)
  • Joanne Archer (UMD Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)
  • Ricardo Punzalan (UMD iSchool, moderator)

The panel discussion began with a consideration of the varied definitions of data from the different perspectives brought together for the day’s event. This highlighted the critical differences between traditional science, the humanities, and archival perspectives when considering the implications of and responsibilities towards data. Catherine Knight-Steele added yet another layer of complexity by considering the impact of ‘data-fication’ of humanities work and the aids and hindrances that accompany computational approaches to traditionally non-digital questions. The panel also considered what ethical approaches to data preservation and dissemination would look like from the panelists’ disciplinary perspectives, raising questions around scalability of open access approaches to immense data sets, costs associated with rigorous standards and practices, and responsibilities towards data originators. Ricardo Punzalan, our gracious moderator, further explored the notion of data responsibilities by posing questions on accountability, asking to whom we are accountable and what the expectation of accountability means to both individual stakeholders and the larger society.

Following on the heels of our panel, a short series of lightning talks featured practitioners giving insight to their interactions with government data sets, data management practices, and critical perspectives on EDW. Speakers included:

  • Amy Wickner (UMD Libraries & iSchool)
  • Jessica Lu (MITH Postdoctoral associate)
  • Kelley O’Neal (UMD Libraries)
  • Matthew Miller (UMD Roshan Institute, moderator)

These excellent speakers inspired a great conversation centered on data preservation practices that lead to larger discussions on advocacy, infrastructure, and institutional roles in preservation of local, state, and federal data.

Next, we continued our EDW activities with a data preservation workshop that covered a basic introduction to data management planning and an overview of a variety of tools used for data management and preservation. The motivation for this course was our belief that awareness of and dedication to the values of data preservation begin with individual practice. By exposing staff, faculty, and students to the core concepts of data management, we hoped to rise the overall level of discourse on campus and, hopefully, improve attendee skills. Along with myself, David Durden (UMD Libraries) and Adam Kriesberg (UMD iSchool) led discussion on data management practices and data preservation initiatives (EDGI, Data Refuge, & c.). We also gave demonstrations on the following tools:

  • Open Refine
  • Data Accessioner
  • Fixity

And last but not least, our EDW happy hour was held at MilkBoy ArtHouse, a College-Park-via-Philadelphia establishment that serves great drinks and a serviceable cheese steak. Sadly, due to the intense windstorm of March 2nd, we had to postpone the event to March 7th. Not to be deterred, the University Libraries had a good turn out and interesting discussions were had by all in attendance.

To round out our Endangered Data Week events, I spoke at the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab as part of their Regional Digital Humanities Symposium. I gave a quick overview of our efforts at UMD and laid out our plans for making EDW 2019 even better.

How, you may be asking, do we intend to do that?

  • Fewer events. While we like the idea of having a bunch of events around EDW, we feel that the effort that is put in to organizing multiple events – each with different needs, requirements, and obligations – winds up creating a black hole into which your time, energy and motivation fall. To that end, we hope that over the next year we will be able to conduct multiple EDW-related events that raise awareness of the week itself and work towards the overall EDW mission of raising awareness and promoting advocacy.
  • ADVERTISING! For the past two years, Purdom and I have let our advertising and outreach efforts slide, leaving us with minimal campus awareness apart from the stalwart few that are already keyed into Endangered Data Week. Shifting more our energies towards advertising and outreach should help us to get our ducks in order.
  • We plan to seek out partnerships with staff, faculty, and graduate students to help us further evolve the UMD EDW vision. Initially, we will be reaching out to the Digital Studies in the Arts and Humanities cohort to see what types of ideas that would like to bring to the table.
  • Advocacy. Inspired by the  EDW advocacy initiatives Brandon Locke discussed in the #EndangeredData twitter conversation, we hope to add an element of advocacy that will engage with local, Maryland, and National legislators to help raise consciousness of Endangered Data topics in our political arena. We hope to also partner with UMD scholars that work in the areas of political science and policy to help us create meaningful approaches to advocacy that will encourage material and sustainable changes to government policy.