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LTER Information Management: Continuing Education and Site Change

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Issue: 
Spring 2011

Karen Baker and Mason Kortz (PAL, CCE)

Having garnered an amazing variety of experience and interacted with an equally amazing set of colleagues associated with the LTER data world, Karen Baker and Mason Kortz are leaving their positions in the LTER in order to retool and continue their education. A keynote presentation on environmental policy at an All Scientists Meetings sparked Mason’s interest in returning to law school after six years with LTER. He has decided to attend Boston University (BU) this fall where he has a full scholarship. For Karen, a PhD program in scientific data curation, offered for the first time this fall at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Graduate School of Library and Information Science presents an opportunity to retire from UCSD/SIO after thirty-five years and to continue her learning while supported by a four-year fellowship.

Information management is carried out jointly at PAL and CCE. Through the work of Karen Baker, Mason Kortz, and James Conners (and Shaun Haber and Lynn Yarmey previously), information management (IM) has, over the last few years, grown into a team effort. Our work with data includes a wide range of site and network activities and provides a unique opportunity for technical, conceptual, and organizational learning and growth. The PAL/CCE team has created a data system that supports many datasets, some of which span more than six decades. We have worked individually and as a team on diverse projects, including the site description dictionary (SiteDB)  (1997-2002), the living dictionary demonstration (2005) that later evolved into the current Unit Registry working group, the Web Services Working Group that is currently addressing redesign of the network personnel directory, and the Governance Working Group that led to the development of the IMC Terms of Reference.

Karen Baker was designated ‘data manager’ for PAL a year after the site began in 1990. PAL scientists concurred that this new LTER ‘task’ of data management could be accomplished by Karen, who managed and analyzed bio-optical data at the time. In terms of data file size, the bio-optical component -- with its biological, physical, and optical water column measurements -- represented ‘the most’ data and therefore a member of the bio-optics component seemed qualified to take care of data management.  Little did Karen realize when she agreed to take on this task that it would lead to a career change from bio-optical oceanographer to that of an information manager who would become co-director of the Ocean Informatics Initiative and head of a multi-project, multi-agency data repository.

In 2005, Mason Kortz was hired by Ocean Informatics, the PAL/CCE information management group, to begin work on a relational data system that marked a transition from a decade of work with file-oriented data management. Along with James Conners, Mason designed the data and metadata database that eventually grew into the information architecture that is now DataZoo.  Later, Mason designed other research databases that bring six decades of biological data into a modern format that can be integrated with current LTER efforts.  In 2007 Mason became co-chair of the Unit Registry working group, and in 2009 he organized and chaired the LTER Web Services working group, bringing a site-based design perspective to multi-site and network level efforts.

Having a team approach provides continuity of effort for our information management work. James Conners is stepping up to lead the information management components of PAL and CCE. In order to continue our team approach and collaborative software development, a new programmer will be hired. In addition, efforts initiated by Karen and Jerry Wanetick to provide organizational placement within SIO for information management will continue with restructuring of Ocean Informatics into a recharge facility for information management. Not only does this introduce flexibility in terms of funding arrangements for information management, it provides an institutional identity as well as a resource for researchers requiring data management plans in response to the new NSF requirements for data plans.

The PAL and CCE LTER sites provided a safe harbor for the development of what began as a site dataset commons in 1992 and grew into an information system that now supports four research projects, hundreds of studies and datasets, and a variety of researchers. The LTER requirement for an information manager at each site creates a unique environment, a natural laboratory of sorts, in which the role of information management can grow and develop. The LTER site-based network model provides a unique configuration that both demands and allows for the exploration and definition of the role of information management at a time when scientific research is undergoing transitions in data practice. As illustrated by Karen, Mason, and other LTER IM participants, the network provides a dynamic learning environment for individuals who are interested in careers associated with data and information in the digital realm -- whether it be in relation to scientific research, environmental policy, or digital infrastructure.