The Impact of Big Data Research

December 9, 2021 By Library Communications

What’s the best way to create better research methods? Well, it seems to be through research.

Recently, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, in conjunction with the Research Cyberinfrastructure Initiative in the Division of IT (DoIT), conducted a study on the practices of UW-Madison researchers, with a focus on those using big data or data science methods. This study was intended to understand the workflows and practices of researchers better. Looking deeper at their practices allows for improved big data research support services for individual units or labs and researchers across campus.

The UW-Madison study is part of a suite of parallel studies conducted at 20 other U.S. higher education institutions, with participants representing 100 different departments. These studies were coordinated by Ithaka S+R, not-for-profit research, and consulting service.

“Ithaka has been a trusted partner throughout multiple studies we have participated in,” says Cameron Cook, Digital Curation Coordinator and Chair for Research Data Services at the UW-Madison Libraries. “Ithaka helps provide oversight of the entire suite of studies, including training and support for each institution in conducting interviews, preparing and analyzing the data, and summarizing our findings. Participation in these Ithaka studies benefits us two-fold: we get deep insight into local needs, and we contribute to the capstone report that gives us broader insight into trends and needs across U.S. institutions.”

The analysis from all studies summarized in a capstone report by Ithaka S+R will serve as an essential focus as UW-Madison works to understand further the support needs of big data/data science researchers at our institution.

The significance of big data and its sharing has created a need to place an extraordinary amount of attention and resources into creating methods, workflows, and infrastructures that can sustain such demands. 

Research suggests universities are meeting an important number of the current demands around big data research efforts. However, systemic-level challenges must be addressed to sustain and continue these efforts.

“Researchers across all disciplines are using big data and data science methods. This study helps us better understand their challenges and gap areas in support,” says Cameron. “This study will help us be more responsive to this growing area and helps prioritize and develop our services to address better the needs of those working with big data.”

The local UW-Madison report is now available, and the full report from Ithaka has also been published. The local report provides an overview of the themes found within the UW-Madison interviews and includes a discussion of the recommendations and opportunities that arose within those themes. The information consists of a meta-analysis of the data from the participating institutions. It contains 30 actionable recommendations for all stakeholders in big data support, from university roles and services to vendors and other external partners.

Those involved in the work around the report say they hope the information and the recommendations provided encourage continued campus and national conversations and improve upon the services and infrastructure needed to support – and enhance – big data research.

“Supporting research requires a broad portfolio of services, resources, and expertise,” says Cameron. “Having data to inform our planning and service development ensures we’re putting resources into the right areas and that we’re developing research services in areas of known need that will have a tangible and significant impact.”