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20 Apr 2017

Experiences from my first RDA Plenary

One year ago I had no clue what RDA is. And if I had known RDA, I would not have imagined to attend one of their Plenaries, because data sharing had rarely been a concern of mine. I am a PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, exploring the application of unmanned aerial systems (UAS or "drones") to study the carbon cycle. A large part of my project was about designing a small and lightweight sensor package and testing it on drones. During this phase I did not need research data from others, and did not collect any data that seemed relevant for others.

Last year, however, two things altered my view. Firstly, the sensor package I was developing reached a stage were I could really apply it in the field. Together with colleagues from Jena and from the US I carried out experiments as part of a larger campaign with more than 20 groups involved. As a result of the campaign, data sharing became a big topic for me: On the one hand, I wanted to share our data with the other participants in a form that is easy to understand and easy to use for further analysis, which made me think a lot about formats and metadata. On the other hand, I needed data from others and had to write a variety of import scripts to get them into my analysis framework. Common standards would have spared all the participants, both data providers and the data users, many hours of work.

That way I had become aware of the intricacy of data sharing, but I did not know yet that there is an organisation that aims to lower the barriers associated with the exchange of research data. This changed when I met Lindsay Barbieri at the Fall Meeting of the American Geoscience Union last year. She told me about the RDA Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems' Data Interest Group that she is co-chairing with Jane Wyngaard and encouraged me to join their effort. Considering how this work would help both me and others I happily accepted the offer.

Attending the RDA 9th Plenary in Barcelona was just the logical next step. Fortunately, RDA Europe offered a program for Early Career Scientists that covers all costs, and my supervisor supported my plans.


When I arrived at the Barceló Sants Hotel, the meeting venue, on the morning of 5 April, I was still not quite sure what to expect. I had perused the program and found many sessions that aligned well with my scientific interests, but I had little idea what the presentations and discussion rounds would be like. Would I understand what people are saying? Maybe they would throw around with administrative terms and political verbiage that I have no clue about? Would it be relevant for me? Maybe the content behind the interesting session titles would be so far from my work that I find it totally boring? Would I feel misplaced? Maybe RDA Plenaries are for data miners, librarians and policy makers, not for experimental scientists like me?

I am glad to say that my apprehensions were all wrong. I was able to follow without difficulties and even those presentations that were quite far from my own field of research often contained ideas and approaches that will help me in the future. While a poll in one of the sessions revealed that (non-data) scientists were in fact clearly a minority, our presence was highly appreciated and I felt very welcome.

The value of and need for RDA’s work was highlighted right at the beginning of the meeting with an excellent keynote talk by Augusto Burgueño Arjona, Head of the Unit "eInfrastructure & Science Cloud" at European Commission's Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. He made a back-of-the-envelope calculation on how many projects in the Horizon 2020 program have faced or will face data sharing challenges and stimulated the audience to think about how much duplicate work could be avoided if these challenges were overcome through a joint effort – like RDA’s work – compared to per-project solutions.

There was a second contribution to the opening session that I would like to highlight: A retrospect on the work of Mark Parsons, Outgoing RDA Secretary General. Hilary Hanahoe, Plenary coordinator & RDA Secretariat, gave a heart-warming 15 minutes presentation consisting of photographs and anecdotes that exemplified how passionate and creative all the people involved in RDA are about their work.

Boosted by this successful opening we started into a series of productive sessions. Most important for me was the meeting of the already mentioned sUAS’ Data Interest Group. After an opening by Jane Wyngaard we had two presentations given remotely (which worked remarkably well). Helge Aasen from ETH Zurich provided an overview of ongoing work in the OPTIMISE project to summarise best practices for spectral sampling with UAS, which will be published in the form of review papers. Next, Karen Anderson from University of Exeter presented the work in her “DroneLab”, highlighting methodological, data-related and legal challenges. Her group has published the operations manual for their fleet of unmanned aircraft to give the community a reference for safe UAS operation and to help other groups to get flight permission from the relevant authorities. I am sure that this manual will be very beneficial for my and other’s future work with UAS.

The third presentation in the sUAS’ Data session was by Scott Simmons from the Open Geospatial Consortium. The OGC has recently proposed an Unmanned Systems Domain Working Group and is seeking public feedback on the draft charter.

All in all the sUAS’ Data session was highly informative, but too short to discuss how we will proceed in the framework of RDA. We made up for that in a smaller group (Jane, Lindsay and I) during the next two days. To have a starting point, we created a wiki on drone data best practices. In the next weeks we will fill in more content and then advertise the wiki within our networks, aiming to get the numerous scientists involved that have years of experience in research with UAS. I am curious to see what they will say.


The RDA 9th Plenary was a great experience. For me it was the first of its kind, but likely not the last one. I am glad that I was given the chance to attend this fruitful meeting in the beautiful city of Barcelona.

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