Data Conservancy Education Activities at the University of Illinois

By Carole Palmer and Virgil Varvel, University of Illinois


The Data Conservancy (DC) Broader Impacts team at the University of Illinois is leading activities to advance education of data professionals to address data curation workforce needs in the sciences. Three activities that are contributing to the education community are outlined here: Teaching Case Studies, Curriculum Database and Analysis, and Research Data Workforce Summit.


Teaching Case Studies


Our first teaching case, Data Conservancy Cyberinfrastructure Early Development Case Study, has been completed and tested with 30 students in the Spring 2012 Foundations of Data Curation course at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science. It is a phenomenological case study exploring the work of the Infrastructure Research & Development (IRD) team during the first two years of the Data Conservancy initiative. The case explores how the team was organized and functioned, the underlying DC architecture and data model, issues that emerged, and decision making around resolution of those issues. Many interwoven social, technological, organizational, and economic aspects have been considered in DC development and the case makes those transparent to help students understand the many dimensions entailed in conceptualizing and building contemporary cyberinfrastructure to meet the goals of curation, preservation, and access in the distributed digital data environment.


The case study covers socio-organizational issues from the perspectives of the team leaders, including:

  • Personnel and resource allocation
  • Software and tools for building the technical architecture
  • Task priorities and issue tracking and management
  • Agreements on implementation frameworks and software development guides
  • Early IRD data model, considered in terms of data, metadata, community needs, and interchange.
  • Architecture capacity and scalability


A second case study is currently under development on the Johns Hopkins University Data Management Services (JHU DMS), focusing on the roles of data management professionals. The case examines three propositions: (1) Data managers play a vital role in the development of a DMS; (2) Skill sets and interactions among data managers are key to the services provided and their success; (3) The JHU DMS represents a valid model for other institutions to follow in developing a data management service. The propositions are being examined through document analysis and interviews, currently underway.


Curriculum Database and Analysis


In response to the current data-intensive research environment, schools of library and information science (LIS) are beginning to build new programs and enhance existing programs to meet workforce demands in data curation, data management, and data science. To understand progress across the field at large, we studied current programs and courses offered at schools of library and information science and developed a database for community wide access to the compiled data. The database and description of the research are available here.


Information on courses and programs was collected by searching online course catalogs and websites, and covering iSchools and other LIS schools for keywords relating to data curation and related curricular areas. After refinement of the dataset based on qualitative review and verification by the institutions offering the programs and courses, the current database now includes 475 courses in 158 separate programs at 54 institutions for analysis showing the high level of coverage of at least some aspects of data expertise. A poster on the project was presented at the 2012 iConference (Varvel, Bammerlin, and Palmer, 2012).


Research Data Workforce Summit


The Research Data Workforce Summit, hosted in conjunction with the 2010 International Digital Curation Conference, was a venue for sharing information and promoting collaboration on education initiatives dedicated to advancing the research data workforce. The final report is available here.


The summit convened twenty-nine invited participants from universities with active data curation and data science education programs and schools involved in training in digital curation, e-science, and related areas, primarily from iSchools. Speakers included representatives of government agencies and data centers, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NOAA, CIESIN, NCAR. Moderated by Lucy Nowell from the U.S. Department of Energy, the program examined current and projected needs for educational programs to advance data expertise in the sciences. One session was devoted to Data Conservancy and DataOne initiatives. Themes that emerged included the need for better coordination across disciplines, a shared vocabulary for the roles and skills covered in ‘data-oriented’ education programs, more targeted recruiting of students with high potential, and further development of domain based mentorship to advance curation education.


Together, these three activities represent the different approaches the Illinois Data Conservancy team has taken to help move the field ahead in workforce development for data professionals.

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