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Data partnerships bode well for sharing government ecological datasets

Pick up any book on how to succeed in business and strong partnerships with clients are highlighted as being vital. This applies equally to TERN’s business model, which requires strong infrastructure partnerships, and is also a key objective of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy that partly funds TERN. These partnerships are critical to TERN’s remit of building a network of research scientists, and enabling open data sharing and collaboration. And it is a vital success factor for a number of facilities in TERN, including Eco-informatics.

Partnerships tend to go through three stages: formation, implementation, and on-going maintenance. Eco-informatics very early identified a critical need to use this as a pathway to build effective partnerships with data custodians for publishing rich ecological data in the Australian Ecological Knowledge and Observation System (ÆKOS). However, forming partnerships is not as easy as one might think.

The Eco-informatics Data Facilitator, Dr Anita Smyth, said some studies had shown that up to half the partnerships formed didn’t survive their first year. The most vulnerable were those that were ‘forced’, such as those required by funders, which were perceived as ‘paper partnerships’. ‘Collaborative research partnerships are part and parcel of standard funding arrangements these days. Given the high risk partnerships failing, we focused on building ones based on shared responsibilities and mutual benefits. We believe this is the best way to ensure open access to datasets in ÆKOS, and that relations remains sustainable,’ Anita says.

‘It’s been tricky to work out. Very few partnerships involve sharing the full complexity and detail of any source data, so we had little practical information about how to form these kinds of partnerships. We adopted an experiential approach, learning as we went. This has proved successful, and we are now at the stage where we maintain many data partnerships with government agencies, research organisations and other TERN facilities.’

ÆKOS has 11 functioning data partnerships that have generated 14 open licences for 19 rich ecological datasets. ‘Interestingly, many government agencies have atlases that deliver biodiversity data, for example species occurrences, so they are familiar with sharing data and this had little influence during our early discussions. It was the three other factors that influenced the way our partnerships were formed, and although that seems obvious in hindsight, it wasn’t at the time,’ Anita says.

In the first instance it was vital to obtain sponsorship from the executive of the agency, and this occurred once the agency realised that ÆKOS’s objectives were complementary and could enhance agency business. Secondly, Eco-informatics staff spent considerable time developing a step-by-step process for dealing with the full spectrum of partnership management, and this approach was attractive to partners because it’s transparent. The final step was the signing of a non-binding memorandum of understanding-style document to record the intent of the partners, objectives and on-going engagement plan. Implementation of the partnership started with agencies providing ‘pilot’ datasets as a demonstration of good faith, before moving to formal licensing and subsequent ingestion of the data into AEKOS. After that, the arrangement moved into the maintenance phase.

The Director of Eco-informatics, Mr Craig Walker, said it had been crucial that the facility invest significant time to appreciate the motivations and needs of data custodians when forming and sustaining partnerships. There was now a significant opportunity to extend and deepen these partnerships and explore further synergies in ecological data management.

For more information, contact Dr Anita Smyth on (08) 8313 1270.

Published in the TERN e-Newsletter October 2012.

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