FAIR, fairer, fairest?

“FAIR” (or “FAIR data”) is an term that I’ve been bumping into more and more frequently. For example, its included in the UK’s recently published Geospatial Strategy.

FAIR is an acronym that stands for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. It defines a set of principles that highlight some important aspects of publishing machine-readable data well. For example they identify the need to adopt common standards, use common identifiers, provide good metadata and clear usage licences.

The principles were originally defined by researchers in the life sciences. They were intended to help to improve management and sharing of data in research. Since then the principles have been increasingly referenced in other disciplines and domains.

At the ODI we’re currently working with CABI on a project that is applying the FAIR data principles, alongside other recommendations, to improve data sharing in grants and projects funded by the Gates Foundation.

From the perspective of encouraging the management and sharing of well-structured, standardised, machine-readable data, the FAIR principles are pretty good. They explore similar territory as the ODI’s Open Data Certificates and Tim Berners-Lee’s 5-Star Principles.

But the FAIR principles have some limitations and have been critiqued by various communities. As the principles become adopted in other contexts it is important that we understand these limitations, as they may have more of an impact in different situations.

A good background on the FAIR principles and some of their limitations can be found in this 2018 paper. But there are a few I’d like to highlight in this post.

They’re just principles

A key issue with FAIR is that they’re just principles. They offer recommendations about best practices, but they don’t help you answer specific questions. For example:

  • what metadata is useful to publish alongside different types of datasets?
  • which standards and shared identifiers are the best to use when publishing a specific dataset?
  • where will people be looking for this dataset to ensure its findable?
  • what are the trade-offs of using different competing standards?
  • what terms of use and licensing are appropriate to use when publishing a specific dataset for use by a specific community?
  • …etc

Applying the principles to a specific dataset means you need to have a clear idea about what you’re trying to achieve, what standards and best practices are used by the community you’re trying to support, or what approach might best enable the ecosystem you’re trying to grow and support.

We touched on some of these issues in a previous project that CABI and ODI delivered to the Gates Foundation. We encouraged people to think about FAIR in the context of a specific data ecosystem.

Currently there’s very little guidance that exists to support these decisions around FAIR. Which makes it harder to assess whether something is really FAIR in practice. Inevitably there will be trade-offs that involve making choices about standards and how much to invest in data curation and publication. Principles only go so far.

The principles are designed for a specific context

The FAIR principles were designed to reflect the needs of a specific community and context. Many of the recommendations are also broadly applicable to data publishing in other domains and contexts. But they embody design decisions that may not apply universally.

For example, they choose to emphasise machine-readability. Other communities might choose to focus on other elements that are more important to them or their needs.

As an alternative, the CARE principles for indigenous data governance are based around Collective Benefit, Authority to Control, Responsibility and Ethics. Those are good principles too. Other groups have chosen to propose ways to adapt and expand on FAIR.

It may be that the FAIR principles will work well in your specific context or community. But it might also be true that if you were to start from scratch and designed a new set of principles, you might choose to highlight other principles.

Whenever we are applying off-the-shelf principles in new areas, we need to think about whether they are helping us to achieve our own goals. Do they emphasise and prioritise work in the right areas?

The principles are not about being “fair”

Despite the acronym, the principles aren’t about being “fair”.

I don’t really know how to properly define “fair”. But I think it includes things like equity ‒ of access, or representation, or participation. And ethics and engagement. The principles are silent on those topics, leading some people to think about FAIRER data.

Don’t let the memorable acronym distract from the importance of ethics, consequence scanning and centering equity.

FAIR is not open

The principles were designed to be applied in contexts where not all data can be open. Life science research involves lots of sensitive personal information. Instead the principles recommend that data usage rights are clear.

I usually point out that FAIR data can exist across the data spectrum. But the principles don’t remind you that data should be as open as possible. Or prompt you to consider about the impacts of different types of licensing. They just ask you to be clear about the terms of reuse, however restrictive they might be.

So, to recap: the FAIR data principles offer a useful framework of things to consider when making data more accessible and easier to reuse. But they are not perfect. And they do not consider all of the various elements required to build an open and trustworthy data ecosystem.

What kinds of data is it useful to include in a register?

Registers are useful lists of information. A register might be a list of countries, companies, or registered doctors. Or addresses.

At the ODI we did a whole report on registers. It looks at different types of registers and how they’re governed. And GDS built a whole infrastructure to support them being published and used across the UK government.

Registers are core components of some types of identifier systems. They help to collect and share information about some aspect of the world we’re collectively interested in. For that reason it can be useful to know more about how the register is governed. So we know what it contains and how that list might change over time.

When those lists of things are useful in many different contexts, then making those registers open helps us to connect together different datasets and analyse them in new ways. They help to unlock context.

How much information should we put in a register? What information might it be useful to capture about the things ‒ the countries, the companies, or the addresses ‒  that are in our shared lists? Do we record just a company number and a name? Or also include the address of the company headquarters and the date it was founded?

When I’ve been designing registers and similar reference datasets, there’s some common categories of a information that I usually think about.

Identifiers

It’s useful if the things in our list have a unique identifier. They might have other identifiers assigned by different systems.

By capturing identifiers we can do things like:

  • clearly refer to items in the register, so we can find their attributes
  • use that identifier to link together different datasets
  • map between datasets that use different identifiers

Names and Labels

Things in the real world aren’t often referred to by an identifier. We give things names. Sometimes they may have several names.

Including names and labels in our identifiers allows us to do things like:

  • use a consistent, canonical name for things wherever they are referenced
  • link to things from a webpage
  • provide a way for a human being to recognise and find things in the register
  • turn a name into an identifier, so we can find more information about something

Relationships

Things in the real world are related to one another. Sometimes literally: I am your father (not, really). Sometimes spatially (this thing is here, or next to this other thing). Sometimes our world is organised into hierarchies or connected in other ways.

Including relationships in our register allows us to do things like:

  • visualise, present and navigate the contents of the list in a variety of ways
  • aggregate and report data according to the relationships between things
  • put something on a map

Types and categories

The things in our list might not all be the same. Or there may be differences between them. For example different types of companies. Or residential versus business addresses. Things might also be put into different categories. A register of companies might also categories businesses by sector.

Having types and categories in a list allows us to do things like:

  • extract part of the list we are interested in, sometimes we don’t need the whole thing
  • visualise, present and navigate the contents of the list in a greater variety of different ways
  • aggregate and report data according to how things are categorised

Lifecycle information

Things in the real world often have a life cycle. So do many digital things. Things are built, created, updated, revised, republished, retracted and demolished. Sometimes those events are tied to the thing being added to the register (“a list of registered companies”), sometimes they’re not (“a list of our current customers”).

Recording lifecycle information can help us to do things like:

  • understand the current state or status of something, which can help drive business and planning decisions
  • visualise, present and navigate the contents of the list in an even greater variety of ways
  • aggregate and report data according to where things are in their lifecycle

Administrative data (relating to the register)

It’s useful to capture data about when the information in a register has changed. For example when was something added to, or removed from a register? When did we last update its attributes or check that the information is current?

This type of information can help us to:

  • identify when information has been changed, so we can update our local copy of what’s in the register
  • extract part of the list we are interested in, as maybe we only want current or historical entries. Or just the recent additions
  • aggregate and report on how the data in the register has changed

Everything else

The list of useful things we might want to include in a register is potentially open ended. The trick in designing a good register is the working out of which bits are useful to be in the register, and which bits should be part of separate databases.

A good register will contain the data that is most commonly used across systems. Centralising that data can reduce the work, costs and also risks of collecting and maintaining it. If you put too much into the register you may end up increasing costs as you may have more to maintain. Or users have to spend more time pruning out what they don’t need.

But, if you are already maintaining a register and are planning to share it for others to use, you can increase its utility by sharing more information about each entry in the list.

Open UPRNs, a worked example

The UK should have an openly licensed address register. At the ODI we’ve long argued for the need for an open address register. But we don’t have that yet.

We do have a partial subset of our national address register available under an open licence, in the form of OS Open UPRNs product. It contains just the UPRN identifier and some spatial coordinates. Through the information in the related Open Identifiers product, we can also uncover some relationships between UPRNs and other spatial objects and administrative areas.

Drawing from the above examples this means we can do things like:

  • increase use of UPRNs as a common machine-readable identifier across datasets
  • identify a valid UPRN
  • locate them spatially on a map
  • relate those UPRNs to other things of interest, like administrative areas

With a bit of extra data engineering and analysis, e.g to look for variations across versions of the dataset we can also maybe work out a rough date for when a UPRN has been added to the list.

This is more than we can do before, which is great.

But there’s obviously clear much, much more we still can’t do:

  • filter out historical UPRNs
  • filter out UPRNs of different types
  • map between addresses (the names for those places) and the identifiers
  • understand the current status of a UPRN
  • aggregate and report on them using different categories
  • help people by building services that use the names (addresses) they’re familiar with
  • …etc, etc

We won’t be able to do those things until we have a fully open address register. But, until then, even including a handful of additional attributes (like a status code!) would clearly unlock more value.

I’ve previously argued that introducing a bit of product thinking might help to bring some focus to the decisions made about how data is published. And I still stand by much of that. But we need to be able to evaluate whether those product design decisions are achieving the intended effect.

Cooking up a new approach to supporting purposeful use of data

In my last post I explored how we might better support the use of datasets. To do that I applied the BASEDEF framework to outline the ways in which communities might collaborate to help unlock more value from individual datasets.

But what if we changed our focus from supporting discovery and use of datasets and instead focused on helping people explore specific types of problems or questions?

Our paradigm around data discovery is based on helping people find individual datasets. But unless a dataset has been designed to answer the specific question you have in mind, then it’s unlikely to be sufficient. Any non-trivial analysis is likely to need multiple datasets.

We know that data is more useful when it is combined, so why isn’t our approach to discovery based around identifying useful collections of datasets?

A cooking metaphor

To explore this further let’s use a cooking metaphor. I love cooking.

Many cuisines are based on a standard set of elements. Common spices or ingredients that become the base of most dishes. Like a mirepoix, a sofrito, the holy trinity of Cajun cooking, or the mother sauces in French cuisine.

As you learn to cook you come to appreciate how these flavour bases and sauces can be used to create a range of dishes. Add some extra spices and ingredients and you’ve created a complete dish.

Recipes help us consistently recreate these sauces.

A recipe consists of several elements. It will have a set of ingredients and a series of steps to combine them. A good recipe will also include some context. For example some background on the origins of the recipe and descriptions of unusual spices or ingredients. It might provide some things to watch out for during the cooking (“don’t burn the spices”) or suggest substitutions for difficult to source ingredients.

Our current approach to dataset discovery involves trying to document the provenance of an individual ingredient (a dataset) really well. We aren’t helping people combine them together to achieve results.

Efforts to improve dataset metadata, documentation and provenance reporting are important. Projects like the dataset nutrition label are great examples of that. We all want to be ethical, sustainable cooks. To do that we need to make informed choices about our ingredients.

But, to whisk these food metaphors together, nutrition labels are there to help you understand what’s gone into your supermarket pasta sauce. It’s not giving you a recipe to cook it from scratch for yourself. Or an idea of how to use the sauce to make a tasty dish.

Recipes for data-informed problem solving

I think we should think about sharing dataset recipes: instructions for how to mix up a selection of dataset ingredients. What would they consist of?

Firstly, the recipe would need to based around a specific type of question, problem or challenge.  Examples might include:

  • How can I understand air quality in my city?
  • How is deprivation changing in my local area?
  • What are the impacts of COVID-19 in my local authority?

Secondly, a recipe would include a list of datasets that have to be sourced, prepared and combined together to explore the specific problem. For example, if you’re exploring impacts of COVID-19 in your local authority you’re probably going to need:

  • demographic data from the most recent census
  • spatial boundaries to help visualise and present results
  • information about deprivation to help identify vulnerable people

Those three datasets are probably the holy trinity of any local spatial analysis?

Finally, you’re going to need some instructions for how to combine the datasets together. The instructions might identify some tools you need (Excel or QGIS), reference some techniques (Reprojection) and maybe some hints about how to substitute for key ingredients if you can’t get them in your local area (FOI).

The recipe might ways to vary the recipe for different purposes: add a sprinkle of Companies House data to understand your local business community, and a dash of OpenStreetMap to identify greenspaces?

As a time saver maybe you can find some pre-made versions of some of the steps in the recipe?

Examples in the wild

OK, its easy to come up with a metaphor and an idea. But would this actually meet a need? There’s a few reasons why I’m reasonably confident that dataset recipes could be helpful. Mostly because I can see this same approach re-appearing in some related contexts. For example:

If you have examples then let me know in the comments or on twitter.

How can dataset recipes help?

I think there’s a whole range of ways in which these types of recipe can be useful.

Data analysis always starts by posing a question. By documenting how datasets can be applied specific questions will make them easier to find on search engines. It just fits better with what people want to do.

Data discovery is important during periods where there is a sudden influx of new potential users. For example, where datasets have just been published under an open licence and are now available to more people, for a wider range of purposes.

In my experience data analysts and scientists who understand a domain, e.g population or transport modelling, have built up an tacit understanding of what datasets are most useful in different contexts. They understand the limitations and the process of combining datasets together. This thread from Chris Gale with a recipe about doing spatial analysis using PHE’s COVID-19 data is a perfect example. Documenting and sharing this knowledge can help others to do similar analyses. It’s like a cooking masterclass.

Discovery is also difficult when there is a sudden influx of new data available. Such as during this pandemic. Writing recipes is a good way to share learning across a community.

Documenting useful recipes might help us scale innovation across local areas.

Lastly, we’re still trying to understand which datasets are a most important part of our local, national and international data infrastructure. We’re currently lacking any real quantitative information about how datasets are combined together. In the same way that recipes can be analysed to create ingredient networks, dataset recipes could be analysed to find out how datasets are being used together. We can then strengthen that infrastructure.

If you’ve built something that helps people publish dataset recipes then send me a link to your app. I’d like to try it.

How can you help support the use of a dataset?

Getting the most value from data, whilst minimising its harmful impacts, is a community activity. Datasets need to be governed and published well. Most of that responsibility falls on the data publisher. Because the choices they make shapes data ecosystems.

But other people have a role to play too. Being a good data user means engaging with that process.

Helping others to find data and find the value in it, feels particularly important at the moment. During the pandemic there are many new datasets becoming available. And there are lots of questions to be answered. Some of them can be answered through better use of data.

So, how can communities work together to support use of data?

There are a lot of different ways to explore that question. But there’s a framework called BASEDEF, created by the open source community, which I find helpful.

BASEDEF stands for Blog, Apply, Suggest, Extend, Document, Evangelize and Fix. It describes the different types of contributions that can support an open source project. It can also be applied to help organise a small team in doing that work. Here’s a handy cheat sheet.

But the framework can also be applied to the task of supporting the use of an openly licensed dataset. Let’s run through the framework with that in mind.


Blog

You can write about a dataset to help others to discover it. You can help explain the potential value of applying the dataset to specific problems. Or perhaps you can see some downsides that others should consider.

Writing about how a dataset has been useful to you, by describing how you’ve successfully applied it in a project, will also help others see its potential value.

Apply

You can show how a dataset can be used, by creating something with it. You might do a detailed analysis of the data, but some simpler contributions can also be helpful.

For example you might create a simple visualisation. Or write and publish some code that illustrates how the dataset can be accessed and used. You could publish a quick demo showing how the dataset can be imported and used in some frequently used tools and platforms.

At the moment everyone is a bit tired of charts and graphs. And I agree with the first principle in the visualisation design principles for the pandemic. But a helpful visualisation can do a range of things. Visualisation can be exploratory rather than explanatory.

A visualisation could support other people in understanding the shape of a dataset, to inform their analysis and interpretation of it. It can help identify outliers, gaps, or highlight some of the richness in the data. I’d recommend making it clear when you’re doing it type of visualisation, rather than trying to derive specific insights.

Suggest

Read the documentation. Download and explore the dataset. Ask questions. Give feedback.

Make suggestions to the publisher about changes they could make to publish the data better. Rather than just offer academic critique, be clear about how suggested changes will support your needs or that of your community.

Extend

The freedoms granted by an open licence allow you to enrich and improve a dataset.

Sometimes the smallest changes can have the most impact. Convert the data into other common or standard formats. Extracting data from spreadsheets into CSV files. Convert data published in more complex formats or via APIs into simpler tabular data to make it more accessible to analysts rather than programmers.

Or maybe you can enrich a dataset by adding identifiers that will allow it to be linked to other sources. Do the work of merging with other datasets to bring in more context.

The downside here is that if the original data changes your extended version will get out of date. If you can’t commit to keeping your version up to date, then be sure to share your code and document your methods.

Allow others to repeat the steps you’ve taken. And don’t forget to suggest the improvements to the publisher.

Document

Write additional documentation to fill in gaps where the publisher has not provided sufficient background or explanation. Explain technical concepts or academic terms to a non-specialist audience.

As a user of the data, you’re able to write that documentation from a perspective that reflects the needs and questions of your specific community and the kinds of questions you need to ask. The original publisher might not have all that context or understand those needs, so this work can be really helpful.

Good documentation can be a finding aid. There are structured ways that you can go about writing documentation, such as this tool for writing civic data guides. (Check out some of the examples).

Evangelise

Email people that might have a need for the data. Tweet about it to a wider community. Highlight it in a presentation. Talk about it over coffee Zoom.

Fix

If the dataset is collaboratively maintained then go ahead and fix errors and omissions. If you’re not confident about making a fix, then submit an error report. In addition to fixing errors you might be able to help verify that data is correct.

If a dataset isn’t collaboratively maintained then, when you find errors, be sure to flag them to the publisher and highlight the issue for others. Or consider publishing an enriched version with fixes applied.


This framework isn’t perfect. The name is a bit clunky for a start. But there’s a couple of things that I like about it.

Firstly, it recognises that not all contributions need to be technical. There’s room for others to use different skills and in different ways.

Secondly, the elements overlap and reinforce one another. Writing documentation and blogging about how you’ve used a dataset helps to evangelise it. Enriching a dataset can help demonstrate in a practical way how a publisher can improve how data is published.

Finally, it serves to highlight some important aspects of community curation which aren’t always well supported in existing data platforms and portals. We can do better here.

If you’re interested in working on adapting this further then happy to chat!. It might be useful to have a cheat sheet that supports its application to data and more examples of how to do these different elements well.

Why is change discovery important for open data?

Change discovery is the process of identifying changes to a resource. For example, that a document has been updated. Or, in the case of a dataset, whether some part of the data has been amended, e.g. to add data, fill in missing values, or correct existing data. If we can identify that changes have been made to a dataset, then we can update our locally cached copies, re-run analyses or generate new, enriched versions of the original.

Any developer who is building more than a disposable prototype will be looking for information about the ongoing stability and change frequency of a dataset. Typical questions might be:

  • How often will a dataset get routinely updated and republished?
  • What types of data updates are anticipated? E.g. are only new records added, or might data be amended and removed?
  • How will the dataset, or parts of it be version controlled?
  • How will changes to the dataset, or part of it (e.g. individual rows or objects) in the dataset be flagged?
  • How will planned and unplanned updates and changes be communicated to users of the dataset?
  • How will data updates be published, e.g. will there be a means of monitoring for or accepting incremental updates, or just refreshed data downloads?
  • Are large scale changes to the data model expected, and if so over what timescale?
  • Are changes to the technical infrastructure planned, and if so over what timescale?
  • How will planned (and unplanned) service downtime, e.g. for upgrades, be notified and reported?

These questions span a range of levels: from changes to individual elements of a dataset, through to the system by which it is delivered. These changes will happen at different frequencies and will be communicated in different ways.

Some times of change discovery can be done after the fact, e.g. by comparing two versions of a dataset. But in practice this is an inefficient way to synchronize and share data, as the consumer needs to reconstruct a series of edits and changes that have already been applied by the publisher of the data. To efficiently publish and distribute data we need to be able to understand when changes have happened.

Some times of changes, e.g. to data models and formats, will just break downstream systems if not properly advertised in advance. So it’s even more important to consider the impacts of these types of change.

A robust data infrastructure will include an appropriate change notification system for different levels of the system. Some of these will be automated. Some will be part of the process of supporting end users. For example:

  • changes to a row in a dataset might be flagged with a timestamp and a change notice
  • API responses might indicate the version of the object being retrieved
  • dataset metadata might include an indication of the planned frequency of publication and a timestamp for when the dataset was last modified
  • a data portal might include a calendar indicating when key datasets will be updated or a feed of recently updated or changed datasets
  • changes to the data model and the API used to deliver a dataset might be announced and discussed via a developer support forum

These might be implemented as technical features of the platform. But they might also be as simple as an email to users, or a public tweet.

Versioning of data can also help data publishers improve the scalability of their infrastructure and reduce the costs of data publishing. For example, adding features to data portals that might let data users:

  • make API calls that will only return responses if data has been updated since the user last requested it, e.g. using HTTP Conditional GET. This can reduce bandwidth and load on the publisher by encouraging local caching of data
  • use a checksum and/or timestamps to detect whether bulk downloads have changed to reduce bandwidth
  • subscribe to machine-readable feeds of dataset level changes, to avoid the need for users to repeatedly re-downloading large datasets
  • subscribe to machine-readable feeds of new datasets, to facilitate mirroring of data across systems

Supporting change notification and discovery, even if its just through documentation rather than more automated means, is an important part of engineering any good data platform.

I think its particularly important for open data (and other data that is liberally licensed) because these datasets are frequently copied, distributed and republished across different platforms. The ability to distribute a dataset, in different formats or with improvements and corrections, is one of the key freedoms that an open licence provides.

The downside to secondary publishing is that we end up with multiple copies of a dataset, some or all of which might be out of date, or have diverged from the original at different points in time.

Without robust approaches to provenance, change control and discovery, we run the risk of that data becoming out of date and leading to poor analyses and decision making. Multiple copies of the same dataset while increasing ease of use, also increases friction by requiring users to have to find the original authoritative data among all the copies. Or try to figure out whether the copy available in their preferred platform is completely up to date with the original.

Documentation and linking to original sources can help mitigate those problems. But automating change notifications, to allow copies of datasets to be easily synchronised between platforms, at the point they are updated, is also important. I’ve not seen a lot of recent work on documenting these as best practices. I think there’s still some gaps in the standards landscape around data platforms. So I’d be interested to hear of examples.

In the meantime, if you’re building a data platform, think about how you can enable users to more efficiently and automatically consume updated data.

And if you’re republishing primary data in other platforms, make sure you’re including detailed information and documentation about how and when you have last refreshed the dataset. Ideally you copies will be automatically updating as the source changes. Linking to the open source code you ran to make the secondary copy will allow others can repeat that process if they need an updated version faster than you plan to produce one.

How can publishing more data decrease the value of existing data?

Last month I wrote a post looking at how publishing new data might increase the value of existing data. I ended up listing seven different ways including things like improving validation, increasing coverage, supporting the ability to link together datasets, etc.

But that post only looked at half of the issue. What about the opposite? Are there ways in which publishing new data might reduce the value of data that’s already available?

The short answer is: yes there are.  But before jumping into that, lets take a moment to reflect on the language we’re using.

A note on language

The original post was prompted by an economic framing of the value of data. I was exploring how the option value for a dataset might be affected by increasing access to other data. While this post is primarily looking at how option value might be reduced, we need to acknowledge that “value” isn’t the only way to frame this type of question.

We might also ask, “how might increasing access to data increase potential for harms?” As part of a wider debate around the issues of increasing access to data, we need to use more than just economic language. There’s a wealth of good writing about the impacts of data on privacy and society which I’m not going to attempt to precis here.

It’s also important to highlight that “increasing value” and “decreasing value” are relative terms.

Increasing the value of existing datasets will not seem like a positive outcome if your goal is to attempt to capture as much value as possible, rather than benefit a broader ecosystem. Similarly, decreasing value of existing data, e.g. through obfuscation, might be seen as a positive outcome if it results in better privacy or increased personal safety.

Decreasing value of existing data

Having acknowledged that, lets try and answer the earlier question. In what ways can publishing new data reduce the value we can derive from existing data?

Increased harms leading to retraction and reduced trust

Publishing new data always runs the risk of re-identification and the enabling of unintended inferences. While the impacts of these harms are likely to be most directly felt by both communities and individuals, there are also broader commercial and national security issues. Together, these issues might ultimately reduce the value of the existing data ecosystem in several ways:

  • Existing datasets may need to be retracted, have their scope changed, or have their circulation reduced in order to avoid further harm. Data privacy impact assessments will need to be updated as the contexts in which data is being shared and published change
  • Increased concerns over potential privacy impacts might lead to organisations to choose not to increase access to similar or related datasets
  • Increased concerns might also lead communities and individuals to reduce the amount of data they are willing to share with previously trusted sources

Overall this can lead to a reduction in the overall coverage, quality and linking of data across a data ecosystem. It’s likely to be one of the most significant impact of poorly considered data releases. It can be mitigated through proper impact assessments, consultation and engagement.

Reducing overall quality

Newly published data might be intended to increase coverage, enrich, link, validate or otherwise improve existing data. But it might actually have the opposite effect because its of poor quality. I’ve briefly touched on this in a previous post on fictional data.

Publication of poor quality data might be unintended. For example an organisation may just be publishing the data it has to help address an issue, without properly considering or addressing underlying problems with it. Or a researcher may publish data that contains honest mistakes.

But publication of poor quality data might also be deliberate. For example as spam or misinformation intended to “poison the well“.

More subtly, practices like p-hacking and falsification of data which might be intended to have a short-term direct benefit to the publisher or author, might have longer term issues by impacting the use of other datasets.

This is why understanding and documenting the provenance of data, monitoring of retractions, fixes and updates to data, and the ability to link analyses with datasets are all so important.

Creating unnecessary competition or increasing friction

Publishing new datasets containing new observations and data about an area or topic of interest can lead to positive impacts, e.g. by increasing confidence or coverage. But datasets are also competing with one another. The same types of data might be available from different sources, but under different licences, access arrangements, pricing, etc.

This competition isn’t necessarily positive. For example, the data ecosystem might not benefit as much from the network effects that follow from linking data because key datasets are not linked or cannot be used together. Incompatible and competing datasets can add friction across an ecosystem.

Building poor foundations

Data is often published as a means of building stronger data infrastructure for a sector, or to address a specific challenge. But if that data is poorly maintained or is not sustainably funded, then the energy that goes into building the communities, tools and other datasets around that infrastructure might be wasted.

That reduces the value of existing datasets which might otherwise have provided a better foundation to build upon. Or whose quality is dependent on the shared infrastructure. While this issue is similar to that of the previous one about competition, its root causes and impacts are slightly different.

 

As I noted in my earlier post. I don’t think this is an exhaustive list and it can be improved by contributions. Leave a comment if you have any thoughts.

Exploring registration agencies as data institutions

A key focus for our research and delivery work at the ODI at the moment is exploring how to design sustainable and trustworthy data institutions. Data institutions are organisations that steward data on behalf of a community. They have a variety of legal forms, roles and purposes.

Yesterday I wrote (again!) about identifiers and specifically, how different communities have been designing and using identifier systems within their business and data ecosystems. In that post I provided an outline of centralised and federated models for assigning identifiers. Both of those models rely on organisations that are known as registration agencies, registration authorities or registrars.

In this post, I’m going to briefly explore the role of registration agencies as a specific form of data institution.

What problem are registration agencies solving?

Organisations working within the same sector, whether they are publishing books, shipping cargo, manufacturing cars or streaming media, need to be able to consistently identify things. Which book has been sold? Where did this cargo container come from? When was this car manufactured? Which artist produced this song?

Whether a group of organisations are competing with one another, providing services or funding to each other, or collaborating as part of a supply chain, they need to be able to refer to the physical and digital objects, people, places and things that are core to their businesses.

Consistent, unique identifiers are one of the building blocks of data infrastructure. As I described in my previous blog post, there are different ways to create identifiers, but a common pattern is to use a registration agency as a central point of coordination.

Registration agencies fulfill the role of having an independent, cross-industry organisation responsible for assigning and managing identifiers for those things of shared interest.

What data does a registration agency steward?

The core role of a registration agency is to govern the identifier scheme. That will involve deciding on details such as the syntax and rules for constructing identifiers, how they are assigned and by whom. It will also manage how the scheme evolves over time in order to support the changing needs of its community. Identifier schemes are standards for data and need to be maintained over the long term.

Registration agencies might directly create and assign identifiers at the request of its community. Or it might delegate that activity to other organisations. Depending on the specifics of the identifier scheme, the agency may only manage a small amount of data.

For example, the IFPI is the Registration Agency for the ISRC identifier used in the music industry since 1986. As an organisation, to create an ISRC for music you are publishing, you first apply for a registration code (a prefix used in the identifiers) from a national agency. You can then locally assign identifiers to your recordings. There is no requirement to register the individual codes with either IFPI or the national agency. There isn’t a central database of the identifiers. So for a long time the IFPI will likely only have had a small database listing the prefixes that had been assigned to specific organisations.

Other registration agencies capture more information about the things that are being identified. Organisations requesting an identifier either provide that data at the point of assignment or later deposit it with the agency. This seems to me to be a more common setup: having a central database supports a variety of additional use cases. For example, it can help answer some of the questions I posed above, e.g. when was this car manufactured?

In 2016, IFPI worked with a vendor called SoundExchange to launch a search engine and database, although this is not a complete source of all the data. This presumably addressed needs not covered by the existing system.

So, the data stewarded by a registration agency may vary. It may ranges from basic administrative information about the identifier scheme to a much broader set of data deemed to be useful to the community. Registration agencies may be key data intermediaries in their sector and so fulfill a wider purpose. This is why there is often commercial interest and competing projects to creating identifier schemes for specific industries, there is a lot of potential value to be captured.

How are they setup, and how do they approach sustainability?

In practice any community could work together to setup a common identifier scheme and an organisation to manage it. It just needs a shared understanding of the value of common identifiers and/or a common registry. For example, ZooBank and the LSID in the biosciences. Or the role of the IEEE in managing identifiers the electronics industry.

Existing data intermediaries may branch out into launching identifier schemes to support aggregation and distribution of other data. For example, Refinitiv’s PermId.

Governments also often setup registers and organisations to steward them. For example, Companies House in the UK. Registers frequently address a different set of needs, but assigning identifiers is frequently part of the task of maintaining a register.

Governments can create registers and registration agencies whenever they see fit. As can commercial organisations and community initiatives, given sufficient agreement, funding and resources.

A fourth approach to starting a registration agency is via ISO. Some identifier schemes end up being published as international standards. According to ISO policy, if a new standard identifier is going to require a registration process, then ISO will appoint an organisation as the official registration authority for that standard. This creates a monopoly situation so there is a process of review of the proposed approach, the agency and their approach to sustainability.

ISO publish a list of registration agencies for ISO standards. It includes IFPI as the agency for the ISRC standard

Registration agencies can charge fees for providing the registration services. But ISO requires those to be done on a cost recovery basis only. Approval for the charging of fees requires an additional level of review within ISO. But an agency might provide other supporting services.

Looking across some of the ISO appointed authorities, many appear to charge fees for registration both at the point of assignment of an identifier and on an annual basis. Many also seem to offer additional services and/or operate on a membership basis.

Different approaches to governance

From my reading so far, it seems that registration agencies supporting identifier schemes that are part of the public sector, commercial or community initiatives tend to be more centralised.

Looking across the ISO nominated registration agencies, these tend to use a federated assignment approach, similar to the IFPI, where much of the work is delegated to national agencies with the primary agency primarily acting as the custodian of the overall scheme and a point of coordination. The primary registration agency might also be a fallback for circumstances where a national agency hasn’t been appointed.

This country based approach makes sense for international standards: national agencies can work more closely with their communities.

Another example of this approach is the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI) which is governed by the ISNI International Agency which appears to have been set up specifically for this purpose. It’s work is delegated to a long list of specific assignment agencies. One of which is the British Library. As it happens, the British Library fulfills a similar role for a number of identifier schemes. This suggests that long-term sustainability for the identifier scheme and the primary registration agency is related to the sustainability of a broader set of organisations which might be acting as a national registration agency only as part of their operations.

One slightly different approach to governance is that of the DOI Foundation, which is the ISO appointed registration agency for DOI identifiers. DOIs can be assigned to a very broad category of different things and so, while the Foundation does delegate to other agencies, these aren’t along national lines. Instead there are different DOI registration agencies for different communities and purposes.

One example is CrossRef which works in the publishing industry, another is EIDR which operates in the entertainment industry. Both are covered by common rules published by the DOI Foundation which outlines acceptable business models, roles and and responsibilities.

While the individual agencies run their own technical platforms, the DOI Foundation also provides some common technical infrastructure to support its registration agencies and enable long-term persistence of the identifiers. This common infrastructure was moved to a separate not-for-profit in 2014, apparently as a means to increase trust.

How do different communities create unique identifiers?

Identifiers are part of data infrastructure. They play an important role, helping to publish, structure and link together data. Identifiers are boundary objects, that cross communities. That means they need to be well-documented in order to be most useful.

Understanding how identifiers are created, assigned and governed can help us think through how to strengthen our data infrastructure. With that in mind, let’s take a quick tour of how different communities and systems have created identifier systems to help to uniquely refer to different digital and physical objects.

The simplest way to generate identifiers is by a serial number. A steadily increasing number that is assigned to whatever you need to identify next. This is the approached used in most internal databases as well as some commonly encountered public identifiers.

For example the Ordnance Survey TOID identifier is a serial number that looks like this: osgb1000006032892. UPRNs are similar.

Serial numbers work well when you have a single organisation and/or system generating the identifiers. They’re simple to implement, but can have their downsides, especially when they’re shared with others.

Some serial numbering systems include built in error-checking to deal with copying errors, using a check digit. Examples include the CAS registry number for identifying chemicals, and the basic form of the ISSN for identifying academic journals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we can see in the bar code form of the ISSN shown above, identifiers often have more structure to them. And they may not be assigned as a simple serial number.

The second way of providing unique identifiers is using a name or code. These are typically still assigned by a central authority, sometimes known as a registration agency, but they are constructed in different ways.

Identifiers for geographic locations typically rely on administrative regions or other areas to help structure identifiers. For example the statistics community in the EU created the NUTS codes to help identify country sub-divisions in statistical datasets. These are assigned based on hierarchy beginning with the country and then smaller geographic regions. Bath is UKK12 for example.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postal codes are another geographically based set of codes. Both the UK and US postal codes use a geographical hierarchy. Only here the regions are those meaningful to how the Royal Mail and USPS manages its delivery operations, rather than being administratively defined by the government.

 

 

 

 

 

Hierarchies that are based on geography and/or organisational structures are common patterns in identifiers. Existing hierarchies provide a handy way to partition up sets of things for identification purposes.

The SWIFT code used in banking has a mixture of organisational and geographic hierarchies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Encoding information about geography and hierarchy within codes can be useful. It can make them easier to validate. It also mean you can also manipulate them, e.g. by truncation, to find the identifiers for broader regions.

But encoding lots of information in identifiers also has its downsides. The main one being dealing with changes to administrative areas that mean the hierarchy has changed. Do you reassign all the identifiers?

Assigning identifiers from a single, central authority isn’t always ideal. It can add coordination overhead which can be particularly problematic if you need to assign lots of identifiers quickly. So some identifier systems look at reducing the burden on that central authority.

A solution to this is to delegate identifier assignment to other organisations. There are two ways this is done in practice.

The first is what we might call federated assignment. This is where the registration agency shares the work of assigning identifiers with other organisations. A typical approach is to delegate the work of registration and assignment to national organisations. Although other approaches are possible.

The delegation of work might be handled entirely “behind the scenes” as an operational approach. But sometimes it ends up being a feature of the identifier system.

For example the  (LEI) uses federated assignment where “Local Operating Units” do the work of assigning identifiers with. As you can see below, the identifiers for the LOUs become part of the identifiers they assign.

 

 

 

The International Standard Recording Code uses a similar approach with national agencies assigning identifiers.

 

 

 

 

Another approach to reducing dependence on, and coordination with a single registration agency, is to use what I’ll call “local assignment“. In this approach individual organisations are empowered to assign identifiers as they need them.

A simplistic approach to local assignment is “block allocation“: handing out blocks of pregenerated identifiers to organisations which can locally assign them. Blocks of IP addresses are handed out to Internet Service Providers. Similarly, blocks of UPRNs are handed out to local authorities.

Here the registration agency still generates the identifiers, but the assignment of identifier to “thing” is done locally. And, in the second case at least, a record of this assignment will still be shared with the agency.

A more common approach is to use “prefix allocation“. In this approach the registration agency assigns individual organisations a prefix within the identifier system. The organisation then generates new unique identifiers by combining their prefix with a locally generated suffix.

A suffix might be generated by adding a local serial number to the prefix. Or by some other approach. Again, after generating and assigning an identifier they are commonly still centrally registered.

Many identifiers use this approach. The EIDR identifiers used in the entertainment industry look like this:

 

 

A GTIN looks like this:

 

 

 

 

And the BIC code for shipping contains look like this:

 

 

 

One challenge with prefix allocation is ensuring that the rules for locally assigned suffixes work in every context where the identifier needs to appear. This typically means providing some rules about how suffixes are constructed.

The DOI system encountered problems because publishers were generating identifiers that didn’t work well when DOIs were expressed as URLs, due to the need for extra encoding. This made them tricky to work with.

For a complicated example that mixes use of prefixes, country codes and check digits, then we can look at the VIN, which is a unique identifier for vehicles. This 17 digit code includes multiple segments but there are four competing standards for what the segments mean. Sigh.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s possible to go further than just reducing dependency on registration agencies. They can be eliminated completely.

In distributed assignment of identifiers, anyone can create an identifier. Rather than requesting an identifier, or a prefix from a registration agency, these systems operate by agreeing rules for how unique identifiers can be constructed.

One approach to distributed assignment is to use an element of randomness to generate a unique identifier at the point of time its needed. The goal is to design an algorithm that uses a random number generator and sometimes additional information like a timestamp or a MAC address, to construct an identifier where there is an extremely low chance that someone could have created the same identifier at the same moment in time. (Known as a “collision”).

This is how UUIDs work. You can play with generating some using online tools.

Identifiers like UUIDs are cheap to generate and require no coordination beyond an agreed algorithm. They work very well when you just need a reliable way to assign an identifier to something with reasonable confidence that if our data is later combined then we won’t encounter any issues.

But what if we need to independently assign an identifier to the same thing? So that when we later combine our datasets, then our data will link up?

For this we need to use a hash-based identifier. A hash based identifier takes some properties of the thing we want to identify and then use that to construct an identifier. If we have a good enough algorithm then even if we do this independently we should end up constructing the same identifier.

This is sometimes referred to as creating a “digital fingerprint” of the object. It’s commonly used to identify copies of objects. For example, the approach is used to construct content identifiers in the IPFS system. And as part of YouTube’s Content ID system to manage copyright claims.

But hash-based identifiers don’t have to be used for managing content, they can be used as pure identifiers. The most complex example I’m familiar with is the InChi, which is a means of generating a unique identifier for chemicals by using information about their structure.

 

 

 

 

By using a consistent algorithm provided as open source software, chemists can reliably create identifiers for the same structures.

The SICI code used to identify academic papers was a hash based system that used metadata about the publication to generate an identifier. However in practice it was difficult to work with due to the variety of ways in which content was actually published and the variety of contexts in which identifiers needed to be generated.

Hash-based identifiers are very tricky to get right as you need a robust algorithm, that is widely adopted. Those needing to generate identifiers will also need to be able to reliably access all of the information required to create the identifier. Variations in availability of metadata, object formats, etc can all impact how well they work in practice.

I miss being able to look people in the eye

What even is time, anymore?

I’ve seen and made many variations of this joke across Slack, twitter and meetings this week. Remote working and social isolation has disrupted all of our routines and left us feeling adrift. But, for those of us lucky enough to have good connectivity, we’re certainly not talking or seeing each other any less. I’ve ended several days this week hoarse from talking.

The number of people playing with avatars, virtual backgrounds and buying green screens speaks to the level of engagement with video meetings and chat. Of course, there’s also the memes.

By the way, Disney are sharing a nice line in backgrounds. But I have my own favourites.

In team catch-ups this week, a few people have remarked how, despite all the meetings and check-ins, they just didn’t feel as engaged. Key decisions or outcomes were not sinking in. People struggled to remember who was on a particular call. This isn’t surprising. Neither the general situation nor the medium we’re using is really great for focus and connection.

The comments have made me more conscious of the limitations of the software we’re using.

For example, one of the nice features of Zoom is the “gallery view” so you can see everyone on the call. Or at least until your call is so large that you end up with several pages of attendees. It makes it really easy to read the room when chairing. Contrast that with hangouts which doesn’t have the same feature. This makes it so much harder to gauge reactions in a discussion, identify people who want to raise questions, or even just catch when someone has had a connectivity problem.

General presence notifications are also a problem. In a drop-in meeting this week, it was only a little way into the call that I realised that we had 17 people in the discussion. That level of participation was so much easier to gauge when we were all sat around tables in the office kitchen.

We tried out Remo recently too. It has a cute office layout that facilitates break-out discussions and you can easily move between chats. I think it’s great for some types of meetings. But it didn’t create quite the same atmosphere for having drinks with the team than a raucous, messy hangout.

I think the thing that I’ve personally been struggling with is that you can’t look anyone in the eye on a video call.

Now, I’m usually terrible at looking people in the eye. In a conversation with me, you’ll find I’m typically looking around as I’m talking. It helps me think. Although when I’m listening, I’m much more attentive to others. But being able to look someone in the eye to read their reactions, look for agreement, or just to enjoy a joke is something that we can’t easily do at the minute. And I miss it.

Some people struggle with direct eye contact. Some people like the freedom to look away, fidget or play with a stress toy when listening. We’re all wired differently. Eye contact isn’t always necessary or desirable. But there’s lots of research exploring the effects of eye contact, which notes some potential impacts on memory and prosocial behaviour.

While tools like Zoom need to fix their security flaws before adding features, I’m hoping this period will lead to more user research and product development. So that we have much better and more secure tools. There’s plenty of room for innovation. Although like others I don’t think that attention correction is what we need. But I’d love to read more about interesting experiments with online presence and remote working tools.

It’s important to remember – as ever when we choose to make something digital – that many of these challenges are a fact of life for people with disabilities, who may be relying on remote participation in events and meetings.

In the meantime there’s a few things we can all do to improve our meetings. Choose the right tool. Find ways to stay in contact with everyone on the call. Take notes. Share key decisions afterwards (duh!)

And, if you’re using multiple monitors, maybe put the video call on the same desktop as your webcam. Or think about putting your webcam near your screen. Then we can at least glance in each others’ directions.

Quick tips for chairing remote meetings

There’s a growing set of useful resources and guidance to help people run better remote meetings. I’ve been compiling a list to a few. At the risk of repeating other, better advice, I’m going to write down some brief tips for running remote meetings.

For a year or so I was chairing fortnightly meetings of the OpenActive standards group. Those meetings were an opportunity to share updates with a community of collaborators, get feedback on working documents and have debates and discussion around a range of topics. So I had to get better at doing it. Not sure whether I did, but here’s a few things I learned.

I’ll skip over general good meeting etiquette (e.g. around circulating an agenda and working documents in advance), to focus on the remote bits.

  1. Give people time to arrive. Just because everyone is attending remotely doesn’t mean that everyone will be able to arrive promptly. They may be working through technical difficulties, for example. Build in a bit of deliberate slack time at the start of the meeting. I usually gave it around 5-10 minutes. As people arrive, greet them and let them know this is happening. You can then either chat as a group or people can switch to emails, etc while waiting for things to start.
  2. Call the meeting to order. Make it clear when the meeting is formally starting and you’ve switched from general chat and waiting for late arrivals. This will help ensure you have people’s attention.
  3. Use the tools you have as a chair. Monitor side chat. Monitor the video feeds to check to see if people look like they have something to say. And, most importantly, mute people that aren’t speaking but are typing or have lots of background noise. You can usually avoid the polite dance around asking people to do that, or suffering in silence, by using option to mute people. Just tell them you’ve done that. I usually had Zoom meetings set up so that people were muted on entry.
  4. Do a roll call. Ask everyone to introduce themselves at the start. Don’t just ask everyone to do that, as they’ll talk over each other. Go through people individually as ask them to say hello or do an introduction. This helps with putting voices to names (if not everyone is on video), ensures that everyone knows how to mute/unmute and puts some structure to the meeting.
  5. Be aware of when people are connecting in different ways. Some software, like Zoom, allow people to join in several ways. Be aware of when you have people on phone and video, especially if you’re presenting material. Try to circulate links either before or during meeting so they can see them
  6. Use slides to help structure the meeting. I found that doing a screenshare of a set of slides for the agenda and key talking points helps to give people a sense of where you’re at in the meeting. So, for example if you have four items on your agenda, have a slide for each topic item. With key questions or decision points. It can help to focus discussion, keeps people’s attention on the meeting (rather than a separate doc) and gives people a sense of where you are. The latter is especially helpful if people are joining late.
  7. Don’t be afraid of a quick recap. If people join a few minutes late in the meeting, give them a quick recap of where you’re at, ask them to introduce themselves. I often did this if people joined a few minutes late, but not if they dropped in 30 minutes into a 1 hour meeting.
  8. Don’t be afraid of silence or directly asking people questions. Chairing remote meetings can be stressful and awkward for everyone. It can be particularly awkward to ask questions and then sit in silence. Often this is because people are worried about talking over each other. Or they just need time to think. Don’t be afraid of a bit of silence. Doing a roll call to ask everyone individually for feedback can be helpful if you want to make decisions. Check in on people who have not said anything for a while. It’s slow, but provides some order for everyone
  9. Keep to time. I tried very hard not to let meetings over-run even if we didn’t cover everything. People have other events in their calendars. Video and phone calls can be tiring. It’s better to wrap up at a suitable point and follow up on things you didn’t get to cover than to have half the meeting drop out at the end.
  10. Follow-up afterwards. Make sure to follow up afterwards. Especially if not everyone was able to attend. For OpenActive we video the calls and share those as well as a summary of discussion points.

Those are all the things I tried to consciously get better at and I think helped things go more smoothly.