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Meet the data agent: Richard Darst

Data agent Richard Darst calls for sense of proportion in expectations related to research data management. Instead of expecting everything to be perfect, he hopes everyone does things a little better in their next project. In this article series Aalto University data agents, researchers and experts experienced in research data management are introduced.
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Picture: Matti Ahlgren

Richard Darst is a staff scientist at the School of Science, Aalto Scientific Computing (Science-IT). He has worked as a data agent in addition to his other duties since 2017.

How did you become a data agent?
When I started my current job in Science-IT, I joined the Data Management Working Group.  Eventually, one of our ideas was "Data Agents", where we would support a network of people close to researchers, within departments. I became one of the agents.

What do you do in practice to help researchers with research data management? Our tools need to be designed for good data management by default, so that good data management is easier. Of course, I am here to answer questions, and based on those questions I try to make sure that our infrastructure is designed so that people don't need to ask questions.

What are your specialties in research data management? I specialize in computational data, simulation data, software, and generally data connected to large-scale computing. I especially want to help make software reusable, open, and valued.

Why do you think research data management is important? Of course, it's important to society, but it is equally important to every researcher and research group. I've seen so many cases where bad data management causes major problems internally: you can't quickly handle paper revisions. Your new student can't find or use the thing your previous student did.  It's easier to reprocess data from scratch, than figure out how to use existing data. Bad research data management really hurts us.

If you had a magic wand, what would you change in research data management at Aalto University? This is not really Aalto but the world: Perfection is the enemy of getting it done. Instead of expecting everything to be perfect (which ends up being postponed, and essentially ignored) and overloading people with instructions, can we hope everyone does things a little bit better in their next project, and the final result is proportional to the value we get out of the data? As long as data is released somehow, and has a license, and minimal documentation, someone can come later and improve the data a little bit more.

What is the new Research Software Engineer program? Science-IT has always tried to provide hands-on support to computing and data, but we can’t scale as much as we need. Now, we have people dedicated to this task as part of our Aalto Research Software Engineer program. Like us, they can provide a short-term basic service for free to the departments that join the program. Unlike us, they can also formally join and be paid by the project for a short period. This way, a group can get international-quality expertise for a short period, without needing to do their own recruitment. Services provided can range from writing and improving software, to data management, to helping with open science tasks. Right now only School of Science sponsors this program, but it will soon expand to other schools. For more information, see https://scicopm.aalto.fi/rse/

Your greetings to Aalto University researchers about research data management? What do you know now about doing research, that you wish someone had told you when you first started as a researcher?  Teach that to others.

Article series Meet the data agent introduces data agents, who are researchers and experts experienced in RDM.

Tasks of the data agents include:

  • Foster reuse of data
  • Help researchers, research groups and departments to manage data well
  • Help to publish data in a suitable repository

Data agents can be contacted directly, or during their consultation hours.

Data agents’ contact information Research data management support is also provided by other specialists of Aalto University. The group includes specialists from IT, Legal Services and Open Science and ACRIS team. This team of data experts can be contacted by sending e-mail to [email protected]

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