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24 Apr 2017

Reflections and lessons from my first RDA Plenary

My name is Marco Minghini, I am an Environmental Engineer with a PhD in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I am currently a Postdoc Research Fellow at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Politecnico di Milano, Italy. I first heard about RDA almost one year ago and I started to become curious about it, wondering if the activities of this organization could be relevant with my own work and research needs/interests. Hence, once discovering the RDA EU Early Career support Programme I applied for attending the RDA 8th Plenary in Denver. My application was successful, however, due to some unforeseen reasons, I could not join the Plenary. Luckily, my participation to an RDA Plenary was just postponed to 7 months later, because I re-applied for the RDA EU Early Career support Programme and I was successful again.

My everyday research work spans the domains of GIS and Remote Sensing and involves a variety of topics: Web Mapping and geo Web services, GIS databases, collaborative mapping, Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), geo-crowdsourcing and (geographic) Citizen Science, education in GIS, Land Use/Land Cover mapping and change. The peculiar nature (i.e. geospatial) of the data I work with makes this domain highly different from any other domain, requiring e.g. specific data formats and Web services for data access/delivery/processing, peculiar data and metadata standards/catalogues, etc. I have been working on GIS-related projects for many years and I have faced many cases where data sharing was among the most difficult aspects to address and solve; however, I could not imagine that there was an organization (RDA) which works exactly in this direction.

Despite this, I have to say that before attending the RDA Plenary in Barcelona I had no clear idea of what to expect. Looking at the program I was able to identify many sessions with potential links to my activities and interests, however I had no clue what these sessions would have really been. A very useful step towards my introduction to RDA happened on April 4, when (exactly one hour after my flight landed in Barcelona) I was able to attend since its beginning the RDA for Newcomers session. Here I could clearly understand how RDA is organized and works, what are its objectives and outputs, and how everyone can contribute to it. During the Opening Plenary Session on April 5 I was particularly inspired by the keynote speech given by Augusto Burgueño Arjona from EU Commission, who stressed that research should not be funded in terms of research disciplines, but in terms of societal challenges. This puts the emphasis on the multi-disciplinary nature of research (something I am really used to, as geospatial technologies are used in a myriad of domains) and thus on the importance of RDA.

During the two and a half days of conference, I attended the meetings of all the RDA Working Groups and Interest Groups (potentially) related to GIS and geospatial data. The first of these was the meeting of the IG Geospatial, something I was already well-aware of as I personally know some of the Chairs. The main presentation given by Suchith Anand highlighted the concept of open geospatial science, which is based on a set of open principles including open source software, open standards, open data, open access to research publications, etc. This is in line with some initiatives I am already involved in, such as GeoForAll, a global network of labs with the purpose of making geospatial education and opportunities accessible to all (I am the responsible and contact point of GEOlab, one of the GeoForAll labs) and the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo), the organization promoting the use and development of geospatial open source software, of which I am a Charter Member. The discussion also touched the present and future role of OpenStreetMap (OSM), the openly-licensed global geospatial database crowdsourced by people, whose increasing success is opening new technical, social and societal opportunities. This discussion is going to continue in the Geospatial IG mailing list to which I will be glad to contribute, as I possess a very good knowledge on OSM derived from my experience of both an OSM contributor and a researcher on OSM. The poster I presented at the RDA 9th Plenary was largely focused on OSM (see below).

All the meetings of RDA WGs and IGs related to the geospatial domain were very interesting as well. In particular, I was positively surprised by the meeting of the IG Quality of Urban Life: Urban Data Informatics and Delivery, where I had the chance to attend the presentation of Martino Pesaresi (from EC-JRC) about the GHSL (Global Human Settlement Layer), a new global product aimed at mapping the human presence at a global scale. One of the research works I am currently involved in is exactly focused on GHSL and aims at its validation, therefore I was so glad to speak with Martino Pesaresi and share some thoughts with him. Other interesting geospatial-related sessions were the joint session of the IG Agricultural Data (IGAD), WG Wheat Data Interoperability, WG Rice Data Interoperability, WG Agrisemantics, where it was stressed that data itself has no value, it is what you make out of data which has value; the meeting of the WG Fisheries Data Interoperability, where I had the chance to meet the leading team of the H2020 BlueBRIDGE project which has many interesting aspects from the perspective of geospatial (fisheries) data access, processing and sharing, and that is organizing a datathon in July 2017 I may attend; and the meeting of the IG Weather, climate and air quality, which reflected around the problems of sharing Big (Geo) Data related to this growing domain. Finally, other meetings not specifically related to the geospatial domain were very enlightening for me: one on all, the meeting of the Research Data Collections WG, whose output – an API to build and manage collections of research data objects (regardless of their nature, user community and application scenario) – was presented. I really appreciated this session as I realized how important it is to create cross-discipline tools able to facilitate and ease data sharing in research.

The poster I presented at the RDA 9th Plenary (accessible in PDF here) was titled “Volunteered Geographic Information and OpenStreetMap: Experimentations and Perspectives”. It shows many research works I have carried out over the last couple of years around the topics of VGI and OpenStreetMap, which show the new role played by citizens as providers (and no longer only consumers) of geographic information which has a great potential for use in scientific applications.

All in all, joining my first RDA Plenary was extremely useful and beneficial. I am glad I had the chance of being introduced to this active community of people and to understand not just that my everyday work activity can be facilitated by RDA findings and outputs, but also that my everyday work is the natural place where I can give my contribution to the RDA mission. I wish to thank the RDA EU Early Career support Programme for giving me this opportunity.

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