When I got first involved in the agINFRA project, I kept hearing the name of a man called Guntram Geser. As the project was in its initial steps, a lot of work was done in the context of identification of user requirements and analysis of the existing status in several sections, such as the agricultural data sources – and most (if not all) of this work was prepared and delivered by Guntram Geser. Not only I was curious to meet Dr. Geser (and I actually got the opportunity some months later), but I also used his work as a basis for other related deliverables of the agINFRA project, which had to do with the methodology of the data integration as well as the description of the data sources to be integrated in the agINFRA grid- and cloud- based services and the linked agricultural data infrastructure.
In addition, a large part of his work (such as the agINFRA Dossier on Germplasm information, which included an overview of the germplasm data sources, software platforms, standards etc. used by the germplasm data sources) was fundamental for the discussions which took place in the context of the 1st International e-Conference on Germplasm Data Interoperability.
Dr. Geser was kind enough to accept our invitation for a short interview, which you may find right below:
1. What is your scientific background and your current occupation?
My scientific background is in the social sciences and humanities and, since about 15 years, research on the use and impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) in various sectors such as media, education and culture / cultural heritage. The organization I am working at is the not-for-profit ICT research and development center Salzburg Research that is owned by the Austrian state of Salzburg. For 10 years I was head of the department Information Society Research, a role which three years ago I was happy to hand over to a younger colleague. Recently the department was renamed to Innovation Lab, but the focus of my research work is still the same: what changes in practices, business models, collaboration etc. take place when novel ICT are introduced in organisations.
2. What are you working on in your institution and what are your research interests?
Most of my work is development of ICT research & development roadmaps for innovations in specific sectors, technology monitoring & assessment, and studies on ICT adoption, usage and impact. A specific field of research I am most interested in currently is e-science, i.e. the use of ICT tools and services for scientific purposes. This includes research e-infrastructure, virtual research environments and data repositories, and the related movement towards Open Access to research content and data. Two current EU funded projects in this field are agINFRA – A Data Infrastructure to Support Agricultural Scientific Communities and ARIADNE – Advanced Research Infrastructure for Archaeological Dataset Networking in Europe. Most of my work in these projects is on the actual needs and requirements of the intended users (e.g. researchers, data managers, research organisations and projects) concerning technologies, services and data resources. Furthermore, major topics are potential innovations in the organisation and practices of research, enhanced interoperability of data (e.g. through Linked Data) and novel forms of collaboration between researchers.
3. Can you share some information about your current work in the context of the agINFRA project?
agINFRA will run until end of January 2015. Now, in the remaining project months, it’s all about evaluation and sustainability of the tools and services that have been developed.
4.You have produced thorough reports about the requirements of agricultural research in ICT services and the various agricultural data sources available worldwide, what is your experience from this research?
This is a huge topic and the agINFRA reports, although extensive and detailed, could only scratch the surface (see the deliverables D2.1, D2.2 and D2.3 here).
The main point is that agricultural research communities are located in a wide, multidisciplinary array of research domains, ranging from molecular biology to environmental and geo-sciences, including also economic and social sciences (e.g. agro-economics and rural development). Indeed, this sector of applied research and development presents an enormous variety of research domains in terms of topics, types and methods of research. This is also the case concerning the spectrum of required data resources, which range from the micro-level (e.g. genetic data) to the macro-level (e.g. satellite and other remote sensing data). The core domains of agricultural research are located somewhere in the middle ground and produce their data themselves (e.g. plant and animal production and protection, farming systems and processes, etc.), while micro- and macro-level data are mostly provided by other domains of research as well as commercial providers. In the areas of agro-economics and rural sociology and development there is of course a large overlap with economics and sociology as well as political goals and data collected by public administrations.
Concerning the data resources, a lot exist and are growing, but most are currently not available Open Access. Representative surveys across all disciplines have shown that only some 6-8% of researchers sometimes make data openly accessible in a community repository; most research data is locked away, remains on PCs and restricted access servers. The data practices clearly run against what advocates of Open Data would like researchers to do. But there are currently more obstacles than incentives for Open Data sharing, including perceived lack of academic reward, additional effort, concerns that data might be misused, and more. Yet the obstacles can be overcome by addressing the institutional requirements. They include extension of open access mandates of research funding agencies and institutions from papers to research data, available trusted data repositories, and making sure that data sharers receive the credit they deserve. Indeed, presenting clear evidence of the benefits of open data publication is crucial.
In the area of agricultural research, the research and development vision of Open Data is that open sharing of data will allow for better analysis and solutions for critical issues such as food security, limited natural resources, and increasing environmental impacts of their exploitation. Some initiatives have recently mobilized many important actors in the agricultural sector, especially the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative (GODAN). But overall there is need of a change in the research culture towards open sharing of data as well as available and sustainable services such as data infrastructure, repositories and portals.
Concerning the data, there is need of truly open data both in technical terms (i.e. not PDFs but the actual data in open formats) as well as open licenses (i.e. the most open Creative Commons or Open Data Commons). Furthermore the data should of course be easy to find, interlink and access, based on semantically linked metadata (i.e. Linked Data). A major asset concerning shared semantics in the agricultural sector is the worldwide used of FAO’s multi-lingual AGROVOC thesaurus, which is also mapped to other major thesauri and vocabularies (see AGROVOC and AGROVOC Linked Open Data).
5. How do you feel about the progress of the agINFRA project? What would you like to see the project achieving by the end of the year?
Basically the project has explored how to set up a data infrastructure, harvest and integrate data (including the use of Grid and Cloud based services, open APIs, Linked Data, etc.), and enhance services for the agricultural research community. Such services for example are FAO’s AGRIS 2.0 and the CIARD-RING, which is a directory of information services and datasets in agriculture developed by the Global Forum on Agricultural Research, currently 1017 services and 267 datasets of 487 partners. The project has also supported and integrated several relevant systems and tools (e.g. AgriDrupal, AgroTagger and others), worked on the interlinking of specific data resources such as germplasm and soil data, and of course promoted open access data sharing. However, compared to the challenges mentioned above the achievements of agINFRA can only be first steps in the right direction. Therefore, what I would like to see by the end of this year, at least during the next, is a follow-up project to carry forward and leverage the good results of agINFRA.
6. You have been actively involved in other projects which are not related to agriculture; would you like to share some more information about that?
The most important projects arguably have been about cultural heritage and ICT, how to leverage the access to and understanding of cultural heritage and, thereby, help to preserve it. This work started with the DigiCULT Study (PDF) for the European Commission in 2000/2001 and continued to the current CreativeCH – Creative Cooperation in Cultural Heritage project.
Actually, in recent decades the importance and appreciation of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has risen enormously. Ever more historic and lived culture is understood as heritage and, at the same time, felt to be in peril, due to the rapid economic and social transformation of societies and communities. The same pattern we can see concerning bio-heritage, i.e. the loss of ecological habitats and biodiversity, endangered or already lost species etc. – including agricultural diversity which is threatened by the expansion of industrialised agriculture.
7. Last but not least, what is your opinion about Agro-Know, based on your short experience?
In short, I very much hope that we can continue working together also after the agINFRA project. It is a pleasure to work with the Agro-Know team. The team always delivers on what it promises – “proud delivery”, which is but one of Agro-Know’s values I appreciate.
We would like to thank Dr. Geser for accepting our invitation for the short interview and we really hope that we will have the opportunity to collaborate again in the near future!