Tag Archives: data management

Is Big Data Missing the Big Picture?

27 Apr

Forest_for_the_Trees

When I was defending my graduate thesis a number of years ago, I was asked by one of the faculty in attendance to explain why I had done “x” rather than “y” with my data. I stumbled for a bit until I finally said, somewhat out of frustration at not knowing the right answer, “Because that’s not what I said I’d do.” My statistics professor was also in attendance and as I quickly tried to backtrack from my response piped in, “That’s the right answer.”

As I’ve watched and listened to and read and been a part of so many discussions about data – data sharing, data citation, data management – over the past several years, I often find myself thinking back on that defense and my answer. More, I’ve thought of my professor’s comment; that data is collected, managed, and analyzed according to certain rules that a researcher or graduate student or any data collector decides from the outset. That’s best practice, anyway. And such an understanding always makes me wonder if in our exuberance to claim the importance, the need, the mandates, and the “sky’s the limit” views over data sharing, we don’t forget that.

I really enjoyed the panel that the Medical Library Association put together last week for their webinar, “The Diversity of Data Management: Practical Approaches for Health Sciences Librarianship.” The panelists included two data librarians and one research data specialist; Lisa Federer of the National Institutes of Health Library, Kevin Read from New York University’s Health Sciences Library, and Jacqueline Wirz of Oregon Health & Sciences University, respectively. As a disclosure, I know Lisa, Kevin and Jackie each personally and consider them great colleagues, so I guess I could be a little biased in my opinion, but putting that aside, I do feel that they each have a wealth of experience and knowledge in the topic and it showed in their presentations and dialogue.

Listening to the kind of work and the projects that these data-centric professionals shared, it’s easy and exciting to see the many opportunities that exist for libraries, librarians, and others with an interest in data science. At the same time, I admit that I wince when I sense our “We can do this! Librarians can do anything!” enthusiasm bubble up – as occasionally occurs when we gather together and talk about this topic – because I don’t think it’s true. I do believe that individually, librarians can move into an almost limitless career field, given our basic skills in information collection, retrieval, management, preservation, etc. We are well-positioned in an information age. That said, though, I also believe that (1) there IS a difference between information and data and (2) the skills librarians have as a foundation in terms of information science don’t, in and of themselves, translate directly to the age of big data. (I’m not fan of that descriptor, by the way. I tend to think it was created and is perpetuated by the tech industry and the media, both wishing we believe things are simpler than they ever are.) Some librarians, with a desire and propensity towards the opportunities in data science will find their way there. They’ll seek out the extra skills needed and they’ll identify new places and new roles that they can take on. I feel like I’ve done this myself and I know a good plenty handful of others who’ve done the same. But can we sell it as the next big thing that academic and research libraries need to do? Years later, I still find myself a little skeptical.

Moving beyond the individual, though, I wonder if libraries and other entities within information science, as a whole, don’t have a word of caution to share in the midst of our calls for openness of data. It’s certainly the belief of our profession(s) that access to information is vital for the health of a society on every level. However, in many ways it seems that in our discussions of data, we’ve simply expanded our dedication towards the principal of openness to information to include data, as well. Have we really thought through all that we’re saying when we wave that banner? Can we have a more tempered response and/or approach to the big data bandwagon?

Arguably, there are MANY valid reasons for supporting access in this area; peer review, expanded and more efficient science, reproducibility, transparency, etc. Good things, all. But going back to that lesson that I learned in grad school, it’s important to remember that data is collected, managed, and analyzed in certain ways for a reason; things decided by the original researcher. In other words, data has context. Just like information. And like information, I wonder (and have concern for) what happens to data when it’s taken out of its original context. And I wonder if my profession could perhaps advocate this position, too, along with those of openness and sharing, if nothing more than to raise the collective awareness and consciousness of everyone in this new world. To curb the exuberance just a tad.

I recently started getting my local paper delivered to my home. The real thing. The newsprint newspaper. The one that you spread out on the kitchen table and peruse through, page by page. You know what I’ve realized in taking up this long-lost activity again? When you look at a front page with articles of an earthquake in Nepal, nearby horses attacked by a bear, the hiring practices of a local town’s police force, and gay marriage, you’re forced to think of the world in its bigger context. At the very least, you’re made aware of the fact that there’s a bigger picture to see.

When I think of how information is so bifurcated today, I can’t help but ask if there’s a lesson there that can be applied to data before we jump overboard into the “put it all out there” sea. We take research articles out of the context of journals. We take scientific findings out of the context of science. We take individual experiences out of context of the very experience in which they occur. And of course, the most obvious, we take any and every politician’s words out of context in order to support whatever position we either want or don’t want him/her to support. I don’t know about you, but each and every one of these examples appears as a pretty clear reason to at least think about what can and will happen (already happens) to data if and when it suffers the same fate.

Are there reasons why librarians and information specialists are concerned with big data? Absolutely! I just hope that our concern also takes in the big picture.

 

Candy Cane 11: Are we leaping (like the lords) to conclusions?

11 Dec

 December 11 – Managing Information and/or Managing Data

I admit that I struggle greatly with how easily we librarians interchangeably use the terms information and data. I believe that there are significant differences between managing information and managing data. I also think that our history, professionally, is in the former more than the latter. That said, as we move more and more into the realm of data management, we’re making the argument that we also have a history of managing data. 

In a recent post on the e-Science Community Blog (a part of the e-Science Portal for New England Librarians), Nancy Glassman, Assistant Director for Informatics at the D. Samuel Gottesman Library, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, argues that Librarians are the Original Data Managers. I’m not sure that I wholeheartedly agree with Nancy, but what I do really like about this post is how she lays out the thesis for a class of students who attended a data management workshop she led. What I like best is that she convinced them that librarians do, in fact, have a role in this area. They understood her explanation and she gained credibility not just for herself, but for other librarians these attendees might encounter in the future. 

That’s a win-win for all!

INFORMATION

Tomorrow is Friday! What will the treat be? Check in to find out.

This, That, and a Bit of The Other Thing

8 Aug

I like to make the cards that I give to people. Yes, I too often give in and buy the prefabricated ones, but even then, I try very hard to pick ones out that are blank inside, not substituting anyone else’s words for my own. I like the handmade touch. I have a small box with several cards that I made for my mom when I was a child. They are special. My mom treasured them enough to keep for herself and now, I keep them myself. Crayon-scribbled, “You are the best mom” accompanied by a cut-out, construction paper flower is worth saving.

 

A couple of cards that I made for my mom.

A couple of cards that I made for my mom.

Besides the sentimentality of handmade items, they also share the message that the sender took a bit more time to make something just for you. I’m not knocking the time one can spend searching the shelves at the Hallmark store for just the right message, but you must admit that taking the time to make that right message says just a little something more. 

I thought about making cards earlier this week when I followed along with a listserv discussion about the practice of sending weekly articles, messages, and updates to patrons. A number of participants shared some very helpful resources – aggregators, if you will – for delivering timely pieces. It’s both easy and resourceful to subscribe to them. They scour the internet for stories about the latest medical procedure, disease outbreak, trend in healthcare, etc., and send them right to your email inbox for quick reading. Some even annotate them for you, so that you don’t have to be bogged down reading more than seven paragraphs. The suggestion offered in the discussion was to share these feeds with administrators or doctors or researchers or whoever your target audience is. It’s a great idea, but as I thought about it, the practice reminded me of buying a greeting card instead of making one yourself.

Libraries and librarians have given up a great deal of their identity (their brand) over the past years. The full-text of articles are often accessed through third-party vendors or the websites of journals, despite the fact that it’s one’s library that’s often providing the resource. We buy catalogs developed by other companies, rather than developing homegrown management systems. We embed RSS feeds from other sources into our own websites.

And each and every one of these practices saves both time and money, but at what cost?

I got to wondering how much time it would really take to subscribe to a relevant aggegator or journal table of contents, or to set up a few alerts from custom-saved searches, or to put together several Twitter lists that follow sources specific to a group or department I serve. Then I could use these tools to create my own, customized delivery of an article or an interesting piece of news to the same. Think of the return on the investment I’d get by sending a personal note directly to someone with the resource attached, as compared to the same coming from an automated – and branded by someone else – source. Now, I can already hear some naysayers saying, “I don’t have time to keep up with that.” Maybe not, but I think it might be worth a try.

A full shelf of writing and reading, plus Finz. And an autographed baseball. And a holiday ornament. Librarians don't need to be organized at home.

A full shelf of writing and reading, plus Finz. And an autographed baseball. And a holiday ornament. Librarians don’t need to be organized at home.

Related, another thing that I often hear people say is that we don’t have time to read ____ (insert whatever it is that you don’t have time to read – blog posts, journal articles, interesting pieces from the news). Similarly, many say that we don’t have time to write _____ (insert whatever it is that you don’t have time to write – blog posts, journal articles, etc.). This a dilemma. To paraphrase Stephen King (the writer), if you want to be in the information business, you need to do two things above all others; read a lot of information and write a lot of information. How else can you stay on top of it? How else can you provide good information resources to those you serve? How do we call ourselves information professionals if we ignore the very thing that we’re supposedly experts in? We work in a fast-paced and rapidly changing profession. All the more reason to do those two things above all others. Read and write.

I write a post for this blog each week. Thanks to the kind words of many colleagues, not to mention usage statistics, I know that people read it. But I also read the writings of colleagues and other people who provide so much insight, interest, and entertainment to my work, that I can’t imagine how lousy I’d be at my job without them. With this stated, I’m sharing several really good things that crossed my radar over the past week. If you can find a moment or two to read them, you may find it worth your while:

  • Data Dictionaries, a blog post by Kristin Briney. If you’re charged with the task of managing data, at any level, Kristin’s blog is worth following and this particular piece is a great one to bookmark, because it’s really hard to find good posts and good examples on the topic.  
  • Your Two Kinds of Memory: Electronic and Organic, by Annie Murphy Paul. Medical librarians are forever grousing about a certain resource that’s ever-so-popular with doctors and medical students alike. Annie’s post offers an entirely different reason for concern.
  •  There’s a new series debuting on Cinemax soon about the early days of surgery in the United States. Period medical drama. “The Knick” is the creation of Steven Soderbergh and stars Clive Owen, so it surely has potential to be good. After ‘The Knick’: 7 Fascinating Books on the History of Medicine offers critique and … well, suggestions for further reading. (From the blog for the site, Word & Film.)
  • The Trouble with Medicine’s Metaphors is an article by Dhruv Khullar for the Atlantic. Khullar is currently doing a residency at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Maybe it’s because I majored in philosophy, maybe because I love linguistics, maybe because I was in the hospital last week… for many reasons, I found this a great read.

Finally, I always read Amy Dickinson’s advice column. I need all of the everyday, practical advice that I can get. And my friend, Suzy Becker, wrote a most wonderful blog post to go along with the release of her latest book from Random House Kids this week. Author-Daughter Book Club just about made me cry in my cubicle. In a good way. Moms of sons and daughters, both, will enjoy it. I give shout outs to these two writers who, many days, make my day.