Behind the science
Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists will tell you: if you're keen to know what's going on in our oceans, there's only one way to go—collect data in the field. That said, to be used, archived or disseminated, the data must be of high quality and standardized. A handful of men and women work tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure this happens.
Comprised of oceanographers, biologists, computer specialists and technicians, the regional data management team (including nine members for the Quebec region) watch over every stage of data life: from the time it emerges on scientific sampling campaigns to its eternal rest, archived in the Department's database.
"Scientific data has four major stages: collection, validation (quality control), archiving and dissemination," says Sylvain Hurtubise, Section Head, gestion de données et développement informatique (data management and IT development), Science Advice, Information and Support Branch at the Maurice Lamontagne Institute in Mont-Joli.
Ok, but how is scientific data used? Among other things, it's used to evaluate fish and marine invertebrate stocks (fisheries data), to propose oceanographic models or to provide advice on ocean observations. All of this data helps improve our understanding of the marine environment.
"Ideally, our team works with scientists as soon as possible to guarantee that data is acquired during a mission and archived afterwards," explains Mr. Hurtubise. As a result, after each sampling campaign his team plays a key role in data processing. Scientists also need to use that data, so it must be available quickly.
It matters little to Mr. Hurtubise whether those using the data are associated with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada, other departments, universities or community organizations. "Our work must be seamless and transparent at all times, no matter who's using it," he says. This is an enormous challenge, given that data collection is increasingly done in real time.
That's especially the case for data collected through a network of scientific buoys that is part of a joint project between Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski. That data is shared by the St. Lawrence Global Observatory. The information here must be monitored quickly to detect incorrect data before it is sent out to users and eventually archived in the Department's Environmental Data Management System (EDMS). And there are many users! "More than 350 are registered in the EDMS, a mix of government organizations, universities and the general public. There are also 25 subscriber countries, including Switzerland and Malaysia. Why? It may be to compare their ecosystems with ours, " says Sylvain Hurtubise.
Globalization has created a situation of near-instantaneous dissemination, which is made possible by Mr. Hurtubise's team of experts and the development over time of powerful IT tools, used largely to preserve and perpetuate historical data.
Mr. Hurtubise explains, "Periodically, we conduct data transformation activities after standards, formats, technologies or materials have changed. These specific projects contribute to conserve old data adequately so that it isn't irrevocably lost. This is an important process, because scientists are continually conducting historical analyses using that data."
Standards and specialists
To prevent Canada from becoming isolated and to foster worldwide collaboration, it's best to comply with international or ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards.
Consequently, a member of Sylvain Hurtubise's team has gone above and beyond their regional mandate and represents the Quebec region in the National Science Data Management Committee. He works with fellow Fisheries and Oceans Canada employees from other regions. Within this national committee, several working groups explore such themes as imagery data, taxonomy data or even standardization of metadata and nation-wide standards. Occasionally, the regional team assists the national teams with data management projects.
In terms of standards, a virtual network of experts, including computer and data management specialists, was established at the St. Lawrence Global Observatory in 2009. The idea behind this network? To share best practices and expertise with members of other organizations. This harmonizes methods and strategies regionally, at the very least.
The regional team is proud in having participated in a culture change. "We are recognized for our behind-the-scenes work. Scientists ask us for advice and guidance, much more than before. Data management is integrated in anticipation of scientific programs. At the beginning of each year, program heads communicate with us to plan their needs and the required resources," explains Mr. Hurtubise.
Changes have also occurred in terms of automating and digitizing (converting paper documents into electronic format) the data production process, which helps prevent the creation and spreading of errors.
What about the future, Mr. Hurtubise? "We want to remain adaptable to meet researchers' growing needs and respond to technological changes to further scientific knowledge of the marine environment. It's a good challenge to motivate my team. We will have to maintain our skills base and train the next generation." That won't be hard for a team whose mission is to provide high-quality scientific data—data that is essential for studying climate change, for example.
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