Open Working

Data Stewards, Software Engineers, Competence Centres. The advantages of defining these terms fluidly.

by Alastair Dunning 

In a couple of blog posts (here and here) on the eScience Centre website, its current CEO Joris van Eijnatten laid out a critique of policy relating to data and software in the Netherlands.  

We share his concern that in the current discourse around evolving research practices, software is sometimes neglected in favour of data.  

For certain types of research, it’s all about the software – developing code that tracks physical processes, and refining that code until it is good enough to model the real world. The data that such code produces might have a validatory role, but it’s the software that drives the research. 

But in other areas of research, the data is the key thing. Mounds of csv files for example that do not require anything more than knowledge of Excel or basic scripting to analyse. 

Different research methodologies show that data and software are intertwined, albeit at different ratios. 

And this is also how it should be for the staff that support these processes. However, Joris’s blogpost on The people who build software in the land of dataspeak makes a clear distinction between research software engineers (RSEs) and data stewards. 

Fluid Roles

But in current working practice, the roles of RSEs and data stewards (and data managers, Open Science trainers, and associated library and IT staff) is much more fluid. 

This is something we have noted at TU Delft. Indeed our Digital Competence Centre (DCC) is established in a way that it allows RSEs and data managers to work jointly with research groups. Examples of five projects involving this approach are the bottom of this webpage

Elsewhere, data stewards contribute to Software Carpentry Training; data managers and RSEs contribute to Geospatial Python workshops; various members of staff contribute to Code Refinery 

And finally, data stewards publish code (such as this example on locating fake news), and software engineers may also publish data.

Their skills are overlapping and complementary. 

Dividing these roles, and creating professional barriers between them, will hinder the flow of knowledge and expertise needed to make new forms of science.    

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

The name of the Digital Competence Centre 

When the DCCs were first announced, we were also a bit bemused by the title. Not only did DCC overlap with an existing UK body that works in this area, but it seemed a vague title that could suggest everything and mean nothing. Libraries and IT departments already struggle with defining the purpose and direction of many of the services they deliver – surely a Digital Competence Centre would make this worse! 

But over the past few months we have come to revise this outlook. 

Precisely because the situation is so fluid; because new roles and responsibilities are being shaped; because the accompanying rewards and recognition are being though. A broad term that can encompass all these changes seems important. 

Additionally, the DCCs also allow for closer collaboration between different university services. Again, from a TU Delft perspective, the DCC has permitted the Library, ICT Department and High Performance Computing services (which are managed by the faculty of computing, electronic engineering and maths) to work more closely together. 

As we look around other Dutch universities, each university is interpreting the DCC in its own way, to suits its own areas of expertise and research, and to adapt to its current maturity in research support. 

Fluid Definitions

Having too precise a term might actually have acted as a counterweight and limited some of the experimentation that is going on.  

The examples we mention above have been facilitated by the funding from the NWO and its relative open definition of what a DCC is. TU Delft is thankful for the possibility to experiment in this area. 

It’s possible than in the future, we will come up for more precise terms and positions for all these roles and the overarching organizations.  

But for the moment, we are glad we can partake in this muddle of software, data and research.