Data Questions? Data Help Desk has the Answers

Cross-posted from the ESA website

ESA conference attendees brought many inquiries about data issues, needs, and planning strategies to the ESA/USSEE 2019 Data Help Desk. Representatives from seven data-intensive organizations (Table 1) shared their collective expertise and insights with more than 200 booth visitors. Collectively, we made an impressive presence of data organizations in the exhibition and poster hall and our mission, to support scientists in open data practices and to provide information on repositories, tools, services, and skills, was well achieved.

Table 1:  ESA 2019 Meeting Data Help Desk participants and major characteristics

The Data Help Desk saw a steady stream of traffic thanks to both its prominent location in the exhibit hall and ESA delegates’ strong interest in the topic. Data Help Desk volunteers also collaborated with the ESA 2019 Career Central to provide mini-workshops and help sessions on topics such as FAIR data, data citation, rAPIs, data management, metadata, data papers, and repositories. Biodiversity Data Dialogues, a Monday morning Special SessionTools and Technologies within the Education track, and a well-attended Inspire Session, Assembling Data for Synthesis: The Good, Bad and In-Between, all prompted visits to the Data Help Desk.

Why a Data Help Desk?

The mission of the Data Help Desk is to advise scientists on the landscape of data repositories housing ecological data and to connect them to tools, services, and skills, and to support the ecological community’s adoption of open science practices and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) data principles. As funders and publishers require that data be made publicly accessible, researchers need assistance with new data management and archiving tasks. The Environmental Data Initiative (EDI), DataONE, and the Arctic Data Center are experts in exactly those areas. Ecologists also have unprecedented opportunities to discover and capitalize on published data if they know where and how to access it. Organizations such as GBIF (the Global Biodiversity Information Facility), iDigBio (Integrated Digitized Biocollections) and NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network) house large, diverse collections of data designed for reuse, and, as with most data repositories, support easy access to their holdings. Further, DataONE acts as a federated network across repositories allowing users to discover data from multiple locations as part of a single search query. All these organizations offer training not only on how to access their own and other data, but also organize events focused on community-driven data mobilization, skills, and expanded data use. Many universities are adding data management training to their curricula, and the landscape of teaching resources is growing quickly – ESIP (Earth Science Information Partners) supports the Data Management Training Clearinghouse for just this purpose.

Photo courtesy of Rebekah Wallace, EDDMaps.

The Data Help Desk acted as a hub for these and other topics. We continually strive to improve our understanding of data needs in our research communities. Social science research reveals that many people currently employed as ecology professionals – along with those in undergraduate, graduate, and post graduate career stages – need ready and coordinated access to expertise, best practices, curricula and assistance when it comes to data (Bishop & Borden, 2019).

Behind the Scenes of the ESA Data Help Desk

The Data Help Desk collaboration originated as a component of Data FAIR activities first hosted and coordinated by ESIP at the AGU 2017 Fall Meeting. The flexible, community-based model and popularity with attendees spurred the development of similar events at other professional meetings and ESA is a natural fit for organizations with expertise in environmental science and biodiversity data. ESIP continues to collaborate, with EDI (Kristin Vanderbilt) leading planning for the 2018 and 2019 ESA meetings and DataONE (Amber Budden) coordinating logistical support. Marshalling the partners to offer such extensive expertise requires considerable planning, including booth design, personnel coverage, cost-sharing models, material development, and travel funding. To best direct visitors, Data Help Desk participants must themselves understand the missions of all partner organizations.

The 2019 Data Help Desk offers special thanks to ESA staff Wendy Ashburn and Jonathan Miller, who worked hard to secure us a prominent location in the exhibit hall and slots in the Career Central schedule.

Take Home Messages from ESA 2019

  1. The Data Help Desk highlighted our community’s areas of need, which continued efforts must address: acquiring data for student and/or research use; data cleaning, reshaping and merging; quality control strategies; guidelines for archiving a researcher’s own data; data citation via DOI; and reproducible workflows that incorporate scripting and version control.
  2. Our general impression is that, regardless of career stage, most booth visitors learned data-related skills on their own with little or no formal training. This suggests that acquiring specific data skills and computational literacy remain major hurdles. Data management practices should be better integrated into all ecological research activities, and scientific meetings provide an appropriate venue to disseminate resources.
  3. With one foot in the rapidly evolving world of information science, “data people” are already veterans of a responsive meeting style called the “unconference”, where the delegates themselves help set a session’s focus and agenda (Ingebretsen 2008, Sohn 2018). With cooperation from ESA in future meetings, the Data Help Desk can coordinate the sorts of unique activities 2019 visitors asked for, and which are best met by small ad hoc sessions and serendipitous meetups integrated into a larger event.

Participating Organizations and Resources

All Data Help Desk materials are available in the wiki, as part of the ESA 2019 Career Central. Seven organizations participated in the ESA 2019 Data Help Desk with additional personnel support provided by EDDMaps, LTER and NCEAS. The following list links to each organization and a selection of some of the resources they offer.

Arctic Data Center



Environmental Data Initiative (EDI)

Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP)

Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)


Long Term Ecological Network (LTER)

National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis

National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)

Future plans

Given the theme of “Harnessing the Ecological Data Revolution”, the Data Help Desk will be a major presence in 2020. 2019 visitors suggested that we host entire sessions with activities themed around data – creation, synthesis, analysis, tools, standards, skills, management, publishing, citation and attribution. Other suggestions included targeted events to meet professional development needs and offer opportunities to students and others in ecology-related fields. Efforts are already underway to address these requests, in addition to more traditional sessions on multiple themes.

The Data Help Desk is a shared resource for many communities working in environmental science, with an evolving cast of collaborators who provide resources targeted for specific events. Beyond AGU and ESA, Data Help Desks have also been active at other conferences including the Entomological Society (2018 joint meeting wiki), and the American Society of Mammalogists in 2019 (article). A Data Help Desk will be at the upcoming 2019 AGU Fall Meeting as part of the ESIP Data Fair, and at 2020 Ocean Sciences Meeting. Stop by anytime; if you have time, expertise or materials to offer, contact either Megan Carter at ESIP or Kristin Vanderbilt at EDI.

Written by Amber E. Budden, Megan Carter, Jeanette Clark, Kyle Copas, Stevan Earl, Megan A. Jones, Margaret O’Brien, Deborah L Paul, Dmitry Schigel, Kristin Vanderbilt, Rebekah Wallace


Bishop, Bradley; Borden, Rose (2019): Data Help Desk: Informing Science Data Help Desk Staffing through Transaction Analysis. ESIP. Report.

Ingebretsen, Mark. 2008. Unconferences Catch On with Developers.

Sohn, Emily. 2018. The future of the scientific conference. Researchers are redefining twenty-first-century conferences at which delegates set the agenda.