What originally started off as occasional purchases of data sets and helping people work with this data has meanwhile developed into an actual team of data specialists. The Erasmus Data Service Centre at the University Library celebrates its tenth anniversary this year.
When data librarian Paul Plaatsman set up the Erasmus Data Service Centre (EDSC) ten years ago, he had no idea that this department would still be needed in ten years’ time. “But there’s been a considerable increase in the importance of quantitative analyses in science,” he explains.
Plaatsman’s EDSC started with the purchase of complex data sets. Although the University Library was already doing this, it still needed an increasing amount of support. Plaatsman and the four other data specialists at EDSC have been giving workshops and individual coaching to students and researchers working with complex data sets. There will always be a need for this, he says: “Our work wouldn’t be necessary if there were proper interfaces,” he adds.
“Actually, working with large-scale data sets is becoming more and more complicated.” As an example, Plaatsman cites the Bloomberg terminals: computer systems containing all kinds of real-time financial data. The EDSC has ten of these. “You need special keyboards with different colours to be able to work with all the different types of data,” Plaatsman explains.
One thing Plaatsman is especially proud of is their access to CBS (Statistics Netherlands) microdata. This is anonymised data at company, organisation or personal level: an ‘absolute gold mine for scientists.’ Use of this microdata involves all kinds of stringent requirements. For example, if a researcher signs a contract with the CBS, he has to keep logging in with his fingerprint every half an hour and nobody else is allowed to see the computer screen. “I had a real struggle to win the CBS’s confidence so that we could start working with this microdata at the university,” he recalls.
“We do 95 per cent of it for the students,” Plaatsman says. The EDSC mainly organises workshops that explain how to work with the data sets. “They learn what’s available, how to find it and how to combine different data sets,” he adds. “We leave it to the lecturers to explain the actual analyses and methods, but students can always come to us if they have questions on any other matters.”
According to Plaatsman, many of the workshops used to be rather haphazard for quite some time. But they are now becoming more structurally embedded in education. “Last year we gave about 30 workshops for a total of 600 students, but I actually had a group of 350 students this January,” he says.
The EDSC will be holding a symposium for scientists on Thursday 9 June in celebration of its tenth anniversary. And the EDSC Student Challenge will be held in the autumn, when students will have the opportunity to display their skills in handling financial data.