The place of data papers: Producing data for geography and the geography of data production

Binary Tempest LogoGeo: Geography and Environment recently published two papers on data practices in the geography. It is an accident they were published on the same day, but it presents an occasion for us, as editors, to reflect on two related issues in academic writing and publishing: the growing role of the data paper and the spatial (and often unequal) distribution of value between data production and theory generation.

It is also good opportunity to remind people we have been promoting debate on open science and data in Geo since our 2015 launch, with the opening commentary from Sabina Leonelli et al and blog responses from George Adamson and James Porter. These pieces are all worth returning to now. The issues that emerge as practices around data sharing meet academic incentives, interdisciplinary research and public outreach continue to gather pace, with data papers offering a new venue for exploring them.

The TEMPEST team have produced the first data paper published in Geo on Dealing with the deluge of historical weather data. This paper explores the practices of assembling a digital resource of historic weather data from documentary archives. It positions their work in relation to other online datasets and offers this resource as an opportunity for future research and public engagement. It also demonstrates an exciting alternative to the drive that Adamson suggests follows the “pressure to analyse, interpret and publish before any data is shared”.

We are keen to encourage more data papers in Geo, both before and after analysis. At its simplest, a data paper describes how a dataset is assembled; reflects on its context and value; and invites others to use it by linking to the data. As the TEMPEST paper indicates, these issues are always complex in practice. Data papers are thus increasingly important in enabling connections in data-rich parts of the discipline and filling gaps in data-poor areas. These topologies of data availability are often complex and increasingly political.

Academics, and others, are facing renewed questions over the value of data and access to it. Access to government data may be removed – as in the disappearance of climate change pages and animal welfare data from US websites. Access to data may be restricted by commercial interests – by excluding data points to shape narratives or introducing high costs for data use.

Conversely, for academics, providing access to data is increasingly mandated. We are being asked to invest our time and resources in curating and archiving data produced in projects by funders. We are also asked to justify why we can’t use existing datasets as we search for new funding. Currently these processes are not well linked, meaning time spent curating data and resources spent collecting new data may both be wasted.

The second paper published, by Margath Walker and Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah on Alternative visualisations of geographic knowledge production indicates the political issues in other aspects of data generation and use.  Their work maps the relation between data production and concept work in critical urban studies and critical GIS, prompting some critical geopolitical questions.

These include: who is involved in generating our data, who is included in generating theory, and where are they both located? How are credit and value distributed across these practices, how do these reproduce existing global inequalities in knowledge production, and how might we enact these relations differently?

We are used to thinking about the responsibilities we have to the stories our respondents contribute to research. But, we are perhaps less used to considering our responsibilities to data and related questions around the ownership, interpretation, openness, and access to this data. The value attributed to ‘progressing’ theory over advancing data reinforces the unequal geographies that Walker and Boamah map out.

Data papers can play a part in exploring and addressing both issues. The detailed explanation of data production in a data paper is a way of reflecting on challenges within a project and of facilitating the recontextualization of data required for reuse beyond it. They also provide a further avenue for redistributing the value from data, by acknowledging the multiple geographies and authors that underpin data production, transforming these into a published research output, and opening space for different interpretations.

We are grateful for the questions that Veale et al and Walker and Boamah have prompted about the aggregation of weather data and the geographical distribution of value through theory and data. We hope they will inspire others to explore the challenges of putting data together and the responsibilities we share in authoring data and facilitating access to it.

Gail Davies, co-editor in chief, Geo: Geography and Environment