Text: Tuomas J. Alaterä, photo: Gry Henriksen

IASSIST: Plenty of Activity Behind the Scenes

IASSIST Annual Conference 2016 was held in Bergen, Norway, 31 May - 3 June. The conference was once again a success, with about 250 data experts attending. The annual conference is the main event of the year for IASSIST (International Association for Social Science Information Services and Technology). Organising the conference takes a lot of time and effort but the association is also engaged in less visible activities during the year.


Tuomas J. Alaterä, IT Services Specialist at the FSD, is the President of IASSIST.

While the conference is the most public and visible event for IASSIST, the administration of such a large association, as well as conference planning and organisation, require a lot of of work that remains invisible to ordinary conference attendees. There is a lot happening behind the scenes during the year, and naturally also during the conference week.

The Administrative Committee, which is the executive body, has virtual meetings once a month. Committees and interest groups report on their activities and goals. The conference week always begins with a day-long Administrative Committee Meeting where officials for the coming year are confirmed, and the goals and efforts of the association are discussed. The actual annual Business Meeting of the General Assembly will be held later in the week as part of the conference program. All kinds of meetings are held during conference breaks and lunch hours. The President spends the evenings preparing things for the next day.

IASSIST provides support and networks

IASSIST has always been based on individual memberships and voluntary work. Its most important community skill is to offer a network of research data experts who can provide support and advice for each other. The annual conference is a useful arena for networking and finding new active people.

Diversity and demand for professionals have increased even in the data management field in recent years. Therefore, the Administrative Committee decided in 2015 to start sponsoring relevant conferences held for data experts. The aim is to increase the visibility of the association in the research data community, to establish bilateral relations with other relevant organisations, and to bring out the expertise of IASSIST members. The next conference that we will support is the 2016 Liber Annual Conference in Helsinki.

Just as important is the Fellows sponsorship which allows a few attendees from under-represented or financially challenged regions to participate in the IASSIST conference. This year the sponsored attendees came from Iran, India, Taiwan and Croatia. The sponsorship gives sponsored attendees an opportunity to attend, learn and network, and in this manner later increase the general skills and knowledge level of their home organisation.

New software makes life easier for Programme Committee

One of the key functions of IASSIST is to organise its next annual conference. Most of the work is done by volunteers, so it is important to get dedicated people to take responsibility for the conference and to find organisations which can provide staff resources both for organising things locally at the conference site and for preparing the programme.

The workload involved is considerable. We are enormously grateful for resources placed at our disposal each year. On the other hand, organising the conference locally, or participating in programme planning are good ways to make one's own field of work visible.

Our intention is to decrease the workload of organisers. A conference and abstract management software OpenConf was used for the first time this year. It turned out to be a definite help for the Programme Committee and allowed, for instance, presenters to upload their presentations themselves.

Initial experiences with the software have been encouraging, which was not totally unexpected. After all, good data management, regardless of whether we are talking about research data or conference abstracts, is always recommended and relevant.

Keeping long history alive

The number of IASSIST members has grown over the years and there is a fair amount of turnover in membership. IASSIST cannot continue relying on university libraries and data archives to runs its web services as it has done so far. Sustainability must be guaranteed.

We also want to record the history of the association. IASSIST was established as early as 1974, and the first annual conference was held in 1977. A lot of material related to the association has been produced over the years but as of yet no-one has put it together. As the association has been functioning for 42 years, even the youngest of the original members are now near retirement age. We aim to collect oral history relating to the association, promote the digitalisation of IASSIST archives, and give access to the digital collection for researchers and in part for members as well.

In 2015, the best IASSIST conference paper award was granted to Kristin R. Eschenfelder et al. for their paper "Sustainability of Social Science Data Archives: A Historical Network Perspective". Its time perspective stretches back to the 1960s. We hope to enrich this work.

The next Annual Conference will be held in the University of Kansas, in its Lawrence campus, in May 2017. Volunteers have already started their preparations.

» More information: IASSIST website.

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