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So long and thanks for all the fish! A fond farewell from the inaugural ITO director

Written by Dr. Karen Payne

April 14th, 2023 marks the end of my term as the inaugural director of the World Data System International Technology Office. As that date approaches I have been reflecting on this extraordinarily rewarding experience and, if you will forgive me the indulgence, I wanted to share a few thoughts on where we are, how we got here, and what the future holds. 

The WDS ITO was officially inaugurated in March of 2018, and I began work in October of 2019. I understood that creating the ITO would be challenging because in addition to creating day-to-day operations, it needed to support the global diverse set of WDS members, answer to the guidance of its Scientific Committee, work in concert with the WDS International Program Office then based in Tokyo, support the priorities of our parent organisation The International Science Council, reflect well on its hosts at Ocean networks Canada and the University of Victoria, and become a trusted member of the Canadian and wider research data management community in such a way that I could ensure the sustainability of the Office, without duplicating efforts or competing with our partners. 

My approach to this multi-prong challenge was based on the recognition that the research landscape was broad, complex and filled with many diverse communities facing an enormous number of technical issues that needed to be addressed. I believed then, as I do now, that the ITO should provide support and services to communities as requested, and that we should reinforce investments in existing infrastructure and help develop the capacity of existing institutions, rather than building our own. I did not seek to create a new boulder in the already mountainous landscape.

Strategically, with limited resources, I needed to prioritize. My approach was to create one program area that exemplified Canada’s excellence in the international community, and one that I thought of as a moon shot. In the first case, while there were many Canadian communities we could have chosen to focus on, the impending threat of climate change drove us to create targeted support for the polar community, and to do so in areas that had applications for all data managers, in particular semantics and federated search. Creating a program over a geographical area, rather than a single domain, also helped surface opportunities to support the ongoing demand for better interdisciplinary work. 

In the second case, it was clear to me that the breadth and ultimate impact of a Global Open Research Commons would be an appropriately audacious goal, and that our work with data repositories would provide a unique perspective and set of resources that will be vital to its success. I could not have asked for better partners to help implement this plan than The Digital Research Alliance of Canada, the University of Victoria and Ocean Networks Canada. And none of it would have been possible without the expanse of expertise available through the Research Data Alliance.

I cannot sufficiently express my empathy for the millions of people around the world who suffered and lost so much during the pandemic. I remain grateful to ONC and UVic for their considered response to this unprecedented event, and to the global community of scientists and public health officials who worked tirelessly to protect us all. Continuing to build the ITO from a laptop in my living room is an experience I will never forget. I am particularly grateful to the expansion of ONC policy that allowed me to hire remote staff across Canada. This seemingly minor administrative shift had huge consequences for the ITO, allowing me to work collaboratively with the best and brightest staff across the country. Any successes of this office are theirs, and it gives me hope for the future. Our workplace shift reflects the reality of global science; collectively, our response to societal grand challenges will only be successful when met by a global set of trusted, good faith actors, no matter where they are. I’m proud that we can count the ITO amongst this community.    

The real story of this startup is the relationships we made along the way. The community that allowed us to not only flourish in our stated program areas, but provided a welcoming and supportive set of partners that allowed us to expand our expectations of ourselves. Whether it was agenda setting in leadership roles with organisations like the Intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) or exploring projects in the biodiversity or health infrastructure communities, it is clear that the need and impact of the ITO was limited only by our imagination. The movement of the IPO from Japan to the US in late 2021 marked a new era for the WDS and an extraordinary opportunity for our collective continued success. 

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get the ITO off to a running start and look forward to seeing it flourish under a new director. I hope that I have positioned ITO in a way that it can continue to support WDS members and the wider DRI community, while reflecting well on Canadian organisations. I am temporarily stepping away from the community for a much needed break, and when I have the wherewithal to return, I will be ready to help tackle the enormous amount of work ahead of us. To everyone that helped make this experience possible, I can’t thank you enough. I look forward to seeing you all again in the future, as we get just a bit closer to our moonshot.

Featured image credit: “Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)” by Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.