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Report on the 2019 CODATA Conference

Towards Next Generation Data-Driven Science: Policies, Practices and Platforms


Beijing, 19-20 September 2019

Tom Emery – NIDI


As part of IUSSP’s activities on the Data Revolution,  IUSSP member Tom Emery represented IUSSP at the 2019 CODATA* Conference that took place in Beijing 19-20 September. He was one of the few delegates from the social sciences among the 200 delegates participating in the meeting, most of whom were from the geological and health sciences as well as chemistry and physics. He presented the work of ODISSEI (Open Data Infrastructure for Social Science and Economic Innovations) and discussed with participants the steps needed to make population data more in line with FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) standards.  The conference was heavily focused on the implementation of FAIR standards across various disciplines and the degree to which these standards could genuinely support interdisciplinary research.


Taxonomies and Standards in Demography are behind other fields

It is evident from the conference and from other communications that the development and adoption of universal standards in demography is behind that of other fields. Demography has advanced and standardized definitions of primary concepts such as TFR, Life Expectancy, Permanent immigrant inflows, etc. but these are not machine readable like ISO standard definitions for education (ISCED) or occupations ( ISCO). This is problematic as it means that the interoperability of demographic data systems both within demography but also in interaction with research infrastructure in other fields is severely hampered.


A good example of this interoperability issue is the United Nations time series of the total fertility rate (TFR) for all countries of the world in World Population Prospects Report 2012 as described at country and region are defined using ISO standards which makes interoperability exceptionally easy and the data are very easy to access and call. However, TFR doesn’t carry a similar standard where the definition and calculation of TFR are not only well described but also assigned a persistent identifier that identifies them as belonging to an accredited standard. In comparison, genetics, biology and astrophysics have clearly agreed, approved and auditable standards.


Demographers have fairly well agreed upon definitions, especially in conjunction with the Statistical Offices, but interoperability could be improved with some formalization. Good examples of social science concepts that are well defined are the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) and the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED).


All the disciplines represented at CODATA were presenting data systems that utilized and leveraged standardized systems. Without standardized systems, demography will struggle to take advantage of the Open Science Agenda and FAIR principles.


The Sustainable Development Goals and UNESCO

The UNESCO influence on CODATA is evident in the streams within the conference which focused on nutrition and disaster management over more traditional disciplinary topics. Within these streams, social science contributions were few. The Key note speakers emphasized data to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) but the goals identified were fixated on those with data from the physical sciences (i.e. climate change, disease prevention, malnutrition). Goals with a social dimension (SDGs 3, 4, 5, 8, 10, 16) were largely ignored. The merger between the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the International Social Science Council (ISSC) it appears has thus far not given the social sciences a more prominent place on the UNESCO agenda. The European Commission, NSF and many other funding councils had a strong presence at the conference and it is clear that they take significant direction from UNESCO on where investments in open science should be made.


Belt and Road Investments in Science and Data

Because the conference was in Beijing, Chinese contributions to the programme and agenda were prominent with frequent reference made to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Belt and Road Initiative is an investment programme coordinated by the Chinese Government which seeks to develop trade infrastructure within the East Asian Region and beyond. A significant proportion of Belt and Road investments will be in research related investments. For example, there were several presentations from the geological sciences which cited the new Chinese Satellite Network financed by BRI. Chinese representatives indicated that collaborations in the collection and processing of data under BRI fell within the Open Science Agenda. It was fairly clear that supporting demographic data collection, processing and availability could well be considered as also eligible under BRI.


*CODATA's Mission

CODATA is the Committee on Data of the International Science Council (ISC) of which IUSSP is a member, (as a result of a merger between the International Social Science Council (ISSC) and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) in 2018). CODATA exists to promote global collaboration to advance Open Science and to improve the availability and usability of data for all areas of research. CODATA supports the principle that data produced by research and susceptible to be used for research should be as open as possible and as closed as necessary. CODATA works also to advance the interoperability and the usability of such data: research data should be FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable). By promoting the policy, technological and cultural changes that are essential to promote Open Science, CODATA helps advance ISC’s vision and mission of advancing science as a global public good.