Mar 4 2013

Confused about data management? Hands up

Gareth Beale
Dr. Julius Axelrod checking a student's work on the chemistry of catecholamine reactions in nerve cells.

Data management can be a daunting subject

I will always remember sitting in my chemistry lesson trying in vain to balance an equation and our teacher looking me in the eye and telling me that if I wasn’t sure then I should put up my hand. I can still hear his encouraging words; “If you are confused then you can bet that most other people are too, so don’t be embarrassed”. This traumatic moment in my life came back to me recently when I was talking to a colleague about the management of our research data. I will explain…

As part of the DataPool project myself and Hembo Pagi have been talking to users of 3D and 2D imaging data. We were interested in finding out how this community were adapting to growing data sets and increasing demands to make these data available. We both produce vast amounts of imaging data as part of our work in archaeology and we were very interested in knowing what kinds of data management strategies other people were using. “We have our own ways of coping but surely other people have got these problems sorted?” we said to ourselves.

Four months later and we are just beginning to uncover answers to this question. As we went around the University talking to physicists, artists, archaeologists, geographers, oceanographers and many others we discovered that there were as many answers as there were researchers.

All of us have different requirements because we work in different areas, use different data, have different outputs and have different resources available to us. We found that not only were people responding to the challenges of data management with amazing creativity and resourcefulness, they were all doing so in unique ways. The range of creative responses which we have encountered paints a picture of a research community that is eager to deal with the challenges and opportunities of data management.

However, like us, very few of these researchers were aware of the approaches adopted by others. Innovative and highly developed data
management strategies are frequently used by a small group of researchers but are unknown to the wider research community. The key to making data management work is to devise an institutional approach which reflects the needs of the users. If we are going to design infrastructure and support mechanisms which work then they must be designed in response to real challenges and real research scenarios.

Children in a classroom with hands up facing the camera

Hands Up if you want to join in.

Which finally brings us back to that hot chemistry lab in the early 1990s. If we have problems with data management and we don’t know how to solve them then we need to put our hand up and ask. Our conversations with researchers have clearly shown that we are all facing similar challenges. Conversely, if we have ideas which might help others (and nearly all of you do) then we need to share them. Our report will suggest that improved communication should lie at the heart of the way in which the University plans for institutional data management. As systems which might facilitate these conversations are developed it is important that the considerations of researchers are taken into account.

Help with data managment can currently be sought from a number of sources including the Library, Library Digitisation Unit and the Software Sustainability Institute, which are all based here at Southampton. But in addition to this it is important that we talk to each other. If you have a problem relating to the management of data then you can be sure that somebody, somewhere in the University has been there before and can help you to solve it.

If you would like to contribute to the development of a forum of this type, have ideas about what form it might take or you just have questions about data management and don’t know where to look then please get in touch. You can email specialists in data management at the library at For more information about the DataPool Project go to, or if you have comments or ideas then email me at gareth[dot]beale[at]soton[dot]ac[dot]uk.