During the e-IRG Workshop in Bratislava, Slovak Republic, we had the chance to talk to Peter Wittenburg, Executive Director of the Research Data Alliance Europe and Senior Data Systems Advisor at the Max Planck Compute and Data Facility. Peter Wittenburg studied Computer Science and Pattern Recognition in Berlin. He had the opportunity to build the Technology and Methodology Department at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, where he stayed for 40 years. During that period, he got involved in various research infrastructure groups, first of all within the Max-Planck-Society, bringing together people from different institutes working at similar issues.
One of the first challenges was the issue of data and tool exchange. At a certain moment, this evolved into not just bringing the specialists but also the institutes together to create an infrastructure in Europe. That was the birth of CLARIN. A few colleagues in Europe came together to build the CLARIN research infrastructure. After that, Peter Wittenburg became involved in the EUDAT data infrastructure across various disciplines. Slowly, he moved away from the smaller level of interaction to the larger level of interaction. The Research Data Alliance (RDA) is at the global level of interaction where you are not building the infrastructure but specifying the connectors, such as APIs and protocols.
RDA has 4500 members but Peter Wittenburg stressed that you have to look at the real engagement of the members. There are between 400 and 700 people in the plannings who do the work. Another point is to see that the younger generation is taking this up. The young people have to build the machinery, the working and the interest groups.
In the workshop Peter Wittenburg held a presentation about the Group of European Data Experts (GEDE). GEDE wants to bring together the experts who work in CLARIN, Elixir and ENVRI, and so forth. These are different research infrastructure initiatives in various disciplines that interact about RDA output and see how this could apply to their problems but also listen to their problems and take them up in the discussion with GEDE and then put it on the RDA table. GEDE is an interaction platform. Since there are so many initiatives already, one needs to consider whether there really is a need for yet another mediation initiative. This is heavily discussed within GEDE because things are changing very quickly now.
The impulse to come together at the e-IRG Workshop came from former e-IRG Chair Sverker Holmgren. GEDE wanted to have a discussion based on standards and challenging topics in the research infrastructures. Sverker Holmgren was interested in seeing people who work on the other side of the rope, the potential users of the research infrastructures. Normally, in e-IRG, you get people who talk at high policy level. You don't get per se the discussion of the practitioners, that is another level. That was probably the motivation from Sverker Holmgren. GEDE was grateful to accept the opportunity to organize the first face-to-face meeting at the occasion of the e-IRG Workshop in Bratislava.
Most of the time was spent talking about GEDE and also the relationship between the practitioners at the research infrastructures and e-IRG at the level of discussion about e-Infrastructures, as they are called in Europe. There were quite some harsh comments on the level of service orientation, principles supported by Peter Wittenburg's colleagues. They talk about services but still, it doesn't really match since the services are partly supported and partly sold, so users don't want to use them. No one is to blame but there are mismatches.
Peter Wittenburg thinks it is good for e-IRG to listen to this practitioner level and consider their views. This is not a GEDE statement because GEDE doesn't have the mission to make statements about services from e-Infrastructures. GEDE has to be careful. Statements have been discussed where in some areas people agree and in other areas people just present their personal opinion.
If e-IRG doesn't just want to make a general policy statement but have an impact on something concrete that happens, it is time that e-IRG raises their voice in the area of persistent identifiers. In many labs, you see increasingly that people use their own ID systems. For citing data and referring to data or software, making data in science reproducible, people normally start using handles for their daily work and for data publications. What you see on the other side of the rope is that the handle system is now in the hands of a Swiss Foundation which is neutral. The Swiss Foundation is governed by an international board of experts. There are representatives from China, Africa, Russia, and Europe. They take care that the handle system is in good hands and will develop. There is a stability over the next years. It is not a system anymore which is owned by an American Institution which would never be accepted by other regions. It is now a Swiss Foundation.
Peter Wittenburg thinks that it is time that, like decades ago where people agreed on TCP/IP with some protocols around it and started using this as a basis, one comes to similar agreements on Personal Identifiers (PIDs) and say: "There is an infrastructure for PIDs and there needs to be done a bit more to maintain it." There is a root hub in Göttingen, but why not have a root hub in Spain or in Italy, so there is a good distribution. This has two effects. Firstly, you create more redundancy, so if something goes out of function, the rest of the system keeps working. Secondly, there is the national pride. Like with the DNS system, every country has its national node.
One has to come to an agreement to support the system. Everyone who wants, should be able to use it, whether it is industry or research - and if you want to use something different, you can do it, but you have to take care because it is persistent.
GEDE will continue talking about this PID topic and will come to statements but at the policy level, it is time for e-IRG to also make a step, according to Peter Wittenburg.