IASSIST 2014 report

Lorna Balkan

Scope of conference

Toronto has just hosted the IASSIST conference, which this year celebrated its 40th anniversary. As usual, it was a great place to find out about the latest developments in data-related issues in the social sciences, and to network and catch up with old friends. It was also an excellent opportunity to visit the magnificent Niagara Falls in the post-conference excursion.

The conference took place over four days on 3-6 June, in glorious sunshine.

The first day was devoted to a series of workshops, followed by a packed programme of presentations. The workshops included one on data visualisation and R, two popular topics of the conference. The presentations were generally just 15 minutes long, and were organised in a number of parallel sessions, according to theme: research infrastructure, research data management, data discovery and tools, and the data profession.

Three thought-provoking plenaries were also held, by Barbara Entwisle, Myron Gutmann, and Chuck Humphrey (who stepped in at the last minute, when the plenary speaker was delayed). Both Barbara and Myron talked about the challenges posed to social science data professionals by the new and emerging forms of data, i.e. ‘big’ (or, as this community would prefer to call them, ‘unstructured’) and linked data. Chuck gave an impromptu, and highly entertaining, talk on the changing role of the data professional, based on his long years of experience in the field. He then opened up the discussion to the audience, so that everyone was able to contribute.

In short, the social science data world seems to be at something of a crossroads. Many questions were raised, and signposts, if not clear paths, identified for how to go forward. It is evident that these new types of data will demand innovation on many fronts – tools, metadata, repository networks, analytics, and data management, to name a few.

Thesaurus focus

CESSDA colleagues were well represented at the conference. It was particularly good to meet Tanja Friedrich who is part of our ELSST team.

There were few talks in the conference that focused on controlled vocabularies in general, or thesauri in particular. There was, however, a parallel session on ‘Harmonization, Thesauri and Indexing’ where both Tanja and I presented. Tanja gave an interesting talk on ‘syntactic indexing’ , a method for improving subject indexing by linking terms, instead of assigning a simple list of terms – for example, ‘democracy: attitude’; ‘homosexuality: behavior’; ‘religion: experience’. My presentation focused on the CESSDA-ELSST project, covering our progress to date on the thesaurus development work, in particular the alignment of HASSET and ELSST, and on the new management system. There was little time for extended discussion, but delegates were interested to know the languages that ELSST is available in, and whether the thesaurus is open source.

Both our presentations should be available soon on the IASSIST conference website. My presentation will also be available on the UK Data Archive website.

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