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D-Lib Magazine

January/February 2014
Volume 20, Number 1/2


Organizational Status of RDA

Mark A. Parsons
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute




The Research Data Alliance is an agile, adaptive, community-driven organization that is growing rapidly. More than one thousand members from around the world have come together to develop Interest and Working Groups dedicated to improving data exchange. Members meet twice each year at formal RDA Plenaries and in more informal regional workshops. A senior Council provides strategic direction and an elected Technical Advisory Board ensures technical viability, applicability, and balance. RDA is also building an organizational membership. The full RDA structure will be in place by March 2014, only one year after the launch.



The Research Data Alliance (RDA) is a work in progress. It is an agile, adaptive, community-driven organization that is growing rapidly. The formation and growth of the RDA reflect the rapidly changing world of research data and technology. RDA launched in March 2013 only partially formed. The community was ready to make an impact—the first Plenary was a success and several Working Groups had been formed—but only the skeleton of the RDA organizational structure was in place. RDA is adaptive, though, and the organizing group had developed a solid foundation, by exciting the community to get involved and proposing a RDA Governance Document which became the central governing document of RDA. It provides the foundation for the RDA organization and describes RDA structures, documents, and operations, while allowing RDA to evolve with community needs. Council (described below) ultimately approves the Governance Document based on their sense of community consensus. The document is always open for community comment. It has evolved since the launch, but it is now fairly stable.

Now, ten months after the launch, most of the structures and processes described in the Governance Document are in place. This article describes the current status and path forward. The plan is for the full organizational structure to be in place and operational by the one-year anniversary at Plenary 3 in Dublin, but the organization is likely to continue to evolve to maximize its impact.


RDA People, Structures, and Processes



RDA Membership is growing. As of 18 December 2013, 1,095 people from 57 countries have formally agreed to the RDA Guiding Principles and officially signed up as members of RDA. This is more than a tripling of the membership since Plenary 1, and shows a lot of enthusiasm by the community. Individual members tend to come from academia, but there is growing interest on the commercial side. Twenty-five commercial and non-profit organizations have expressed willingness to become paying Organizational Members. These include university libraries, supercomputing centers, data centers, data projects, and small and large companies. RDA is also working on creating formal affiliations through memoranda of understanding with several like-minded organizations, including the World Data System, CODATA, ORCID, the International Oceanographic Data Exchange, the World Wide Web Consortium, and DataCite.


Figure 1: Distribution of 1,095 Individual RDA Members in 57 Countries as of 18 December 2013.


Working and Interest Groups

Working Groups (WGs) are the focus of RDA and are responsible for RDA deliverables. Six WGs have been formally recognized and are hard at work:

  • Data Foundation and Terminology
  • Data Type Registries
  • Metadata Standards Directory
  • Persistent ID Information Types
  • Practical Policy
  • Standardization of data categories and codes

We anticipate the first RDA deliverables to come out in mid 2014. Deliverables will include registries or directories of standards and automated policies, defined vocabularies, system specifications, APIs, and prototypes, adopted and used by institutions and projects within the RDA community and beyond. Several new WG proposals are in review, and several more are out for community comment. More proposals are in development.

WGs require significant commitment from the participants. RDA WG members are expected to commit their time and effort to making the WG successful and to carry out the "action plan" of the WG within their home institution. WGs include adopters for the stated outcomes and members who can make a substantial impact through efforts within their home institution. RDA working group constituencies are international and multi-sector. To establish a WG, members develop a formal Case Statement that describes the group's beneficiaries, goals, outcomes, and operational approach. The overall RDA membership and the Technical Advisory Board (described below) review the statement to help ensure broad consensus and technical viability, applicability, and balance. The Council then seeks to ensure that the efforts of the WGs are well aligned with the RDA mission and principles. Council assesses the level of community consensus that emerged during the discussion of the Case Statement. If Council perceives reasonable community consensus and clear needs, deliverables, and beneficiaries, and if there is a concrete adoption and use plan for the deliverables, they formally recognize the WG, and help promote its deliverables.

Interest Groups (IGs) are much more informal. They have a broader remit and are easier to establish. All that is required is a short charter for Council and TAB to review. IGs provide a forum for the community to discuss and develop WG Case Statements. Currently, 21 IGs are formally recognized and active. New ones are created all the time. IGs are where we see our most active collaboration with RDA Affiliates. Current IGs include:

  • Agricultural Data Interoperability
  • Big Data Analytics
  • Biodiversity Data Integration
  • Brokering Interest Group
  • Certification of Digital Repositories
  • Community Capability Model
  • Data in Context
  • Defining Urban Data Exchange for Science
  • Development of cloud computing capacity and education in developing world research
  • Digital Practices in History and Ethnography
  • Marine Data Harmonization
  • Metadata Interest Group
  • Preservation e-Infrastructure Interest Group
  • RDA-CODATA Working Group on Legal Interoperability of Research Data
  • RDA/CODATA Materials Data, Infrastructure & Interoperability IG
  • RDA/WDS Publishing Data Interest Group
  • Research Data Provenance Interest Group
  • Structural Biology
  • The Engagement Group
  • The Long Tail of Research Data
  • Toxicogenomics Interoperability

Plenaries and Regional Activities

Perhaps the most exciting RDA activity is the twice-a-year Plenary that brings the community together to report on and advance the work of RDA. Plenary 1, the launch of RDA, was held in Gothenburg, Sweden in March 2013. It was a very high profile and successful event with 240 registrants. Plenary 2 in September at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC continued that success with 368 participants. Plenary 2 highlighted the rapid growth and achievement of the RDA, the enthusiasm of the community, the commitment of government agencies, and some of the challenges of rapid, organic growth (see the Plenary 2 Conference Report, published earlier in D-Lib Magazine). Plenaries are now focused on creating an environment for WGs and IGs to conduct their work. Planning for Plenary 3 in Dublin, Ireland, 26-28 March 2014 is well underway. Plenary 4 will be in the Netherlands in late September 2014, and Plenary 5 is likely to be in North America.

Supporting plenaries is one of the key activities of "regional RDAs." Currently there are three regional implementations of RDA: RDA/United States, RDA/Europe, and the Australian National Data Service. To achieve a global vision, it must be coupled to local implementation. The regional RDAs enhance that local implementation. They partly reflect the pragmatics of the programmatic funding that supports RDA — agencies support Plenaries and secretarial functions within their jurisdictions. But regional RDAs are also important to helping ensure RDA deliverables are adopted. Adoption is always a local activity and needs to respond to local goals. Regional RDAs support their community to engage in RDA and to attend Plenaries abroad. They support regional meetings that identify and address regional goals, and they conduct activities that amplify adoption of RDA deliverables in their regions.


Coordination and Management

The Council is responsible for maintaining the vision of RDA, ensuring the guiding principles of the organization are maintained, and formally endorsing the outcomes of the RDA activities in line with RDA principles. The RDA Colloquium (RDAC), a sister organization described below, has appointed seven members to the Council:

  • Fran Berman (co-Chair), United States
  • John Wood (co-Chair), United Kingdom
  • Patrick Cocquet, France
  • Tony Hey, United States
  • Kay Raseroka, Botswana
  • Doris Wedlich, Germany
  • Ross Wilkinson. Australia

Two more Council members will be appointed by the funding agencies in the near future, and RDA members are encouraged to nominate candidates. Council members serve three-year terms, and after the next two Council members are appointed, subsequent Council members will be nominated as a slate by a Nominating Committee and put to a vote of approval by the RDA membership. The first Council election will be in 2016. Thereafter, a slate of three candidates will be elected every year in March.

The Technical Advisory Board (TAB) is a 12-member body responsible for the technical roadmap of RDA and for ensuring technical balance across RDA efforts. The TAB advises Council on the endorsement of WGs. The Council appointed five interim members. Six members were elected by the membership to two-year terms soon after Plenary 2. The interim members will be replaced in another election next fall. Annual elections around the fall plenaries will select half the TAB, thereafter. Council will make one final appointment in January. They kept one appointment in reserve to add appropriate balance to the TAB if necessary.

Maintaining a balance of perspectives, regional representation, and technical expertise will be essential to a well functioning TAB. A task force put together a process to maintain that balance by setting a minimum representation from each RDA region and maximum representations for regions, professions, and research disciplines. For example, in the recent election, the top four vote getters were elected, but the next two were skipped to limit over-representation by "data technologists" (see the official results).

The current TAB members are:

  • Beth Plale, US (co-chair)
  • Bridget Almas, US
  • Simon Cox, Australia
  • Peter Fox, US
  • Francoise Genova, France
  • Bill Michener, US
  • Susanna-Assunta Sansone, UK
  • Jamie Shiers, Switzerland
  • Rainer Stotzka, Germany
  • Andrew Treloar, Australia
  • Peter Wittenburg, Netherlands

The Organizational Advisory Board (OAB) is the last structure outlined in the Governance document to come into place. A task force worked hard during summer 2013 to define dues, responsibilities, and members' rights. They recognized that while OAB members pay subscription fees to RDA, they should not be relied on as the primary source of financial support for RDA. Instead the primary purpose of organizational members is to is to act as adopters and to encourage the spread of RDA deliverables.

Representatives from all organizational members and affiliates participate in the Organizational Assembly, which meets during Plenaries. The Assembly elects the OAB, which provides direct advice to Council on the needs of their sectors and the problems they face in data exchange. An interim OAB consisting of representatives from the organizations that have expressed interest in joining or affiliating with RDA is working out the final details of membership guidelines and agreements. Formal membership will begin when the RDA Charity, a second sister organizaton described below, is established. The formal OAB is expected to be established before Plenary 3 in March 2014.

The final coordination body of RDA is the Secretariat. It is currently a distributed body of four individuals.

  • Hilary Hanahoe, Italy
  • Stefanie Kethers, Australia
  • Mark Parsons, United States
  • Herman Stehouwer, Netherlands

The Secretariat establishes and maintains processes; supports the WGs, IGs, TAB, OAB and Council; and helps run the Plenaries. The Secretariat also works with the communications firm Trust-IT to develop and support the RDA Web Platform. Council will have have an appointed Secretary General who will lead the distributed secretariat and act as an observing member of Council.


Sister Organizations

RDA is a virtual organization with a distributed membership. Two other related but distinct organizations support the work of the RDA — the RDA Colloquium and the RDA Charity.

The RDA Colloquium (RDAC) is the body of representatives from funding agencies sponsoring RDA. Currently, agencies from the European Commission and the US and Australian governments, fund RDA staff and operations, and other agencies and nations are showing increased interest. Approximately twenty other people from different agencies and nations attended the RDAC meeting at Plenary 2 in September 2013 to discuss how they might become involved. RDAC members agree to provide direct or indirect support for the RDA Secretariat and semiannual Plenaries.

The RDA Charity is the formal legal entity, which can accept RDA organizational membership dues and other contributions. It should be established early in 2014. The charity is a distinct entity from the full RDA and is formally governed by Articles of Association crafted under UK law. Council acts as the board for the charity, and the charity employs the Secretary General. The mission of the charity is to support the objectives of the RDA.



RDA launched only ten months ago. The organizational structure was not fully formed, but the organization grew quickly and made impressive strides toward creating real, working data infrastructure and a global community. Structure has come in to place over time and has been adaptive to community needs. The full RDA structure — including coordinated financial support, a Council, a secretariat, two advisory bodies, regular Plenaries, and regional implementations — will be in place by Plenary 3, only one year after the Launch. All of this will support several dozen active Working and Interest Groups and a vibrant membership committed to building the social and technical bridges that make data sharing really work.


About the Author

Photograph of Mark A. Parsons

Mark A. Parsons is the Managing Director of the US Component of the Research Data Alliance and the Rensselaer Center for the Digital Society. He focusses on stewarding research data and making them more accessible and useful across different ways of knowing. He has been leading major data stewardship efforts for more than 20 years, and received the American Geophysical Union Charles S. Falkenberg Award as an advocate of robust data stewardship as a vital component of Earth system science and as an important profession in its own right. Prior to joining Rensselaer, Mr. Parsons was a Senior Associate Scientist and the Lead Project Manager at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). While at NSIDC, he defined and implemented their overall data management process and led the data management effort for the ICSU/WMO International Polar Year 2007-2008. He is currently active in several international committees while helping lead the Research Data Alliance in its goal of accelerating innovation through data exchange. His research interests include the role of scientific social interaction in the success, development, and extension of data sharing networks.

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