Data is the new oil

 By Wendy Pradt Lougee

Wendy LougeeBig Data is prominent in the news these days. The marketing spin that “data is the new oil” has been used to convey its growing importance to commerce. And just like oil, not everything that comes with big data is viewed positively: companies use data about an individual’s online activity to customize services, for example, leading to concerns about individual privacy. 

Within higher education, the potential benefits of big data are significant, with the unprecedented ability to mine and share data, fueling wholly new possibilities for research and learning. 

In this issue of continuum, you’ll read about the Libraries’ role in supporting data curation on campus. “Curation” is another one of those over-hyped words in the media. Simply put, curation is the active management of data, ensuring that data are organized and described for access, sharing, and preservation for future use. 

Access, sharing, and preservation are, of course, core roles of Libraries, and our expertise is being expanded to support data services. Libraries’ workshops help researchers develop data management plans, often required by federal funding agencies. We’re involved in providing guidance on protocols for describing data sets that make them more easily discoverable and useful for other researchers. We also promote archiving strategies and standards to preserve data. As the campus develops policies and services around data, the Libraries are key contributors. 

Data services are just one area where increasingly specialized expertise is part of the Libraries’ portfolio. Our Copyright Program Librarian offers education and consulting services to help faculty and students make good choices about using and sharing copyrighted works. Our Clinical Information Librarian is part of patient care teams and rounds, providing on-the-spot evidence that supports health care. Other subject specialists are supporting new online learning programs within disciplines throughout the University. 

These new roles for libraries have one thing in common – they all help support emergent strategies for research, teaching, and learning. These strategies increasingly enhance the educational experience or research capabilities by incorporating digital content and related technologies. 

Libraries have always been in the business of fueling new knowledge by creating structures – both physical and conceptual – that help people access and build upon existing information. We continue in that role through the access we provide to digital data, which gives researchers unique opportunities to explore and combine myriad sources. 

Will big data catalyze as much change in academia as oil did for industry? Only time will tell. In the meantime, unlike oil, knowledge is an infinitely renewable resource, so we are fortunate to have it as the fuel of our academic enterprise. 

Wendy Pradt Lougee
University Librarian
McKnight Presidential Professor 

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