Letter from the Executive Director
The world of standards can sometimes be very narrow, very detailed, and very focused. When one is drilling down on each particular data element, or is fixated on the critical wording of a specification, then attention to the little things can be very important. Miss one key detail and entire systems can come crashing down. Yet technology sharing has very deep and vast implications. It is important from time to time to open up one’s field of view and consider the far-reaching implications and broader context of our work. This week, I am attending International Data Week 2018 in Gaborone, Botswana, where I and some 850 others are working to exchange best practices in data stewardship, and improve data sharing and interoperability. As I am here to focus on data standards, and the role of standards in that process, much of my time is spent on those details. This morning, I was reminded again to take in that broader view.
The President of Botswana, HE Dr. Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi, opened the conference, and he reflected on the power of information technology, data, and data sharing to improve the cultural awareness, to reduce poverty, and to build a better world. First, as someone who attends a lot of meetings, it is very unusual for a local politician to participate in an academic of technology conference, let alone a senior politician or a President or Prime Minister. His presence and the governmental funding to support this meeting are clear indications of the potentially positive impacts of science and research outputs. Sadly, in many western cultures, science and scholarship are taken for granted and their resulting advances are accepted almost as routine and not quite as valued. But when one can see the real impacts on health, safety, and quality of life that advances in education and research can yield, it creates a stark relief to the value that improving access to information can have. One comparison that was made was between the traditional economy, —and information sharing for that matter, —, which required physical materials to be exchanged and therefore limited access. Whereas with digital assets, information, and knowledge, these can more easily be shared and can be used to improve people’s lives, “without darkening me”, in the words of Thomas Jefferson.
Although there is certainly a difference between doing that cutting-edge medical or engineering research and disseminating that research, the work that we as a community do to facilitate access has a tremendous impact as well, particularly in places like Botswana. President Masisi also talked about the ability of any person with a smartphone (and the necessary connectivity) to get access to the world’s information. Provisioning that content in a way that is accessible, that is discoverable, and deliverable in a form that works for that person in sub-Saharan Africa to get that content is our work. We are making a difference in how students, scholars, and researchers can get access to the world’s information as well as to share their own results in our interconnected world. From health information to agricultural information to economics and the arts, we have so much to learn from each other, be they colleagues nearby or in distant places. To this end we can all do more to reach out and engage directly with those outside our traditional circles.