Data from a distance

Koln DomI recently attended the IASSIST (International Association for Social Science Information Services and Technology) 2013 conference. The conference (the 39th to date) entitled Data Innovation: Increasing Accessibility, Visibility and Sustainability was hosted by GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences and held in Cologne, Germany.

It was an incredibly friendly conference and many of the participants knew each other really well. Most of the sessions of interest focussed on research data management and issues around data publication. I presented a talk on data journals as part of a session on Expanding Scholarship: Research Journals and Data Linkages. My slides are available from Slideshare.

One sessions I attended was a panel Data at a distance: using technology to increase reference reach. The session explored the idea that users (and here, by users, they were referring to students and researchers at Higher Education Institutions) want to work in an increasingly virtual space. The result is that the data user is less likely to be tied to a physical data center, and can work from anywhere. This presents not only the challenge of making data available remotely, but also of helping data users at a distance navigate the variety of data sources and successfully use the data.

The panel session looked at different ways a range of institutions tackle the thorny issue of data reference at a distance. There were 4 case studies from a small academic institution, a medium sized academic institution, a large academic institution and a government institution.

Most of the institutions were using services like ‘Ask a librarian’ and also had a course management system which could be accessed by librarians and used by students. Some of the more interesting discussions were around how you “explain things” when face-to-face is not an option.

Wendy Mann from George Mason University described how she had spent countless telephone conversations trying to get people to do things with SPSS files when they did’t know how to unzip a file, and actually don’t know how to use their computers! Dealing with more technologically challenged people often required hand holding and phone conversations but recently they had progressed to using Google hangouts (detailed in my recent post) and They preferred these approaches to ‘Ask a librarian’ chat services in which there was an expectation of fast answers, that they could not necessarily fulfil. George Mason University also use Jing, for screen captures and online tutorials, and GoTomeeting webinar software for meetings. Wendy explained that one of the hardest issues was knowing when it was appropriate to use particular tools i.e. getting the timing right. For example when should you say “this phone call isn’t working, I suggest you watch a screen capture, or we use Skype so I can share my screen”.

Nicole Scholtz talked about a remote consultation and reference service pilot they are running at the University of Michigan using Google Hangouts, Skype, ichat (messages) and M+ Google – Google campus. The pilot was in response to dealing with the mountain of email the librarians currently experience. Nicole shared the grid she uses for dealing with people, it allows her to consider a person’s home set up and skills before choosing a tools to use. It considers a person’s audio/visual content and their computing environment. The majority of interest so far has been from researchers needing help using GIS software and excel. Nicole commented that the service isn’t a perfect solution but that it’s on the right track.

Nicole and her references mode grid

Nicole and her references mode grid

The final speaker in the session was Lynn Goodsell from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Lynn couldn’t travel so was planning to give her talk on archival federal data at a distance using Skype, but unfortunately the unreliable wifi at the conference put pay to this. How ironic! No talk from a distance!

Chair, Shawn Nicholson from Michigan State University, trying to speak to Lynn Goodsell on Skype

Chair, Shawn Nicholson from Michigan State University, trying to speak to Lynn Goodsell on Skype