3 Cheers for The Maintainers

During my annual professional reboot (presenting & attending IASSIST19) I came across a group called “The Maintainers” .. they are championing a refreshingly accurate / realistic perspective on living and working with technology.

Originating in the perspective of the History of Science, their content reflects the understanding that maintenance is not the opposite of change (when in balance they have a symbiotic relationship.)  The Maintainers also most especially focus on the care with which we should also curate the information surrounding all of our technology & technical processes, as well as just coping with the maintenance of everyday information.

I am so happy with their white paper: “Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care: An Invitation to Reflect and Share” (June 17, 2019), downloadable from Zenodo … it is really good.  If you feel like your maintenance work might be dragging you down — read this paper, check out their blog, follow them on Facebook; this is a path that supports a long-term-sustainable and respectful culture.

keeping technology working - at least some of the time

The logo alone (above) probably resonates with many of us – but the group is actually more focused on the maintenance of information (which is inherently technical) and as such, reminds me that the File Management Stewards are in the midst of their 2nd summer without overt recognition.

Many of us are familiar with the term “maintenance,” and we may even have ready-made ideas of what maintenance looks like, whether as an occupation or what we just realized the dishwasher needs. But what about the day-to-day, minute-by-minute work that sustains our world, our societies, and the way we interact with them? Maintenance is like soup: it comes in many styles and flavors. And our preconceived ideas and notions of what maintenance entails simultaneously bias our understanding of maintenance and its value within our surroundings, while further making invisible the myriad forms of work that sustain the world around us…

I’ve been waiting for a professional development group to take this on & it’s likely that The Maintainers are quietly (characteristically) “leading” this charge.

If information is to be useful over time, something more than preservation is required: it must be carefully maintained.  

Paula’s Spring 2018 Update

I am eager to jump into spring term as I have several new projects underway, some that will wrap up in the term & others just getting rolling. While IRA has been short-staffed I’ve chipped in to help with a couple of interesting assessment projects. For these I’m working with Elise Eslinger and Stephanie Huston, and Iris Jastram and Claudia Peterson to set up the next iteration of surveys in Qualtrics.

The DataSquad <https://blogs.carleton.edu/datasquad> continues to be active with all levels of data-related projects, enough so that I’ve added two additional data-eager students; a proposed statistics major and another data science/CS enthusiast. Last term we worked on projects with Barbara Allen (resulting in new data visualizations for her latest book), Beatriz Pariente-Beltran (facilitating their departmental assessment process), Meghan Tierney (saving her research database from oblivion), and Marty Baylor (designing and building a database for managing equipment in Physics).

This term will also mark the end of my first experiment with mentoring a technical project intern. Veronica Child has done a wonderful job as we’ve explored sustainable ways of integrating project management tools like Asana, Jira, and basic process tools within Google Drive – while also helping Squad members grow into working on professional software development teams. I’ll be hiring for a new technical project management intern so please consider sending your candidates my way!

In a completely different arena, I am eager to get back into exploring the newest iterations of online data visualisation tools. I’m thinking here about their potential for use in QRE courses; in particular, for those which have no quantitative prerequisites.

After a flurry of publications in the past year or so, I took this year off of writing to attend more to my parents. As they stabilize, I am eager to return to a dropped project regarding simple and sustainable strategies for managing image collections as research materials.

After an overly booked IASSIST’17 (I had 5 accepted papers and presentations!) – I’m thrilled to go to IASSIST ‘18 in Montreal as a participant only. This is an international association of research data professionals who never cease to energize my thinking and reward my engagement with fantastic collaborations. For instance, last summer I placed two DataSquad students in extraordinary research-data internships in eastern and southern Africa and one at Harvard (that went so well that he’ll be returning for another summer.) And I’ve accidentally set one up for myself! .. well, it turned into a Fulbright Specialist appointment. (All I need now is for the Zimbabwean elections to proceed calmly next summer and my parents to stay stable.)

The Grammarian’s dispute over the word Data

If you’ve been involved with discussions that involve data, you might have noticed the dispute regarding its use. It seems that this dispute boils down to how one copes with foreign words as used in English. In this case, the word data is a plural word in Latin (the singular form is datum.)  

“The data were easy to gather.” “That datum was easy to locate.”

In English, however, data follows the singular rules and therefore may be paired with a singular verb or a plural verb, depending on whether the referenced data may be counted. For instance, just substitute another noun that may be counted or not depending on your use case (e.g. “information” or “facts”):

“The data was easy to gather.“ -> “The information was easy to gather.”

“We put all the data in a single folder.” -> “We put all the facts in a single folder.”

So, on the whole, the English speaking world has voted for the English use of the word data.  For those of us for whom this is irritating, well… we get to suck it up.


In Latin, data is the plural of datum and, historically and in specialized scientific fields, it is also treated as a plural in English, taking a plural verb, as in the data were collected and classified. In modern nonscientific use, however, it is generally not treated as a plural. Instead, it is treated as a mass noun, similar to a word like information, which takes a singular verb. Sentences such as data was collected over a number of years are now widely accepted in standard English.

(Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. “Data.” Def. Usage. Oxford Dictionaries. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/data>.)



Mid 17th century (as a term in philosophy): from Latin, plural of datum. Originally recorded as a term in philosophy referring to ‘things assumed to be facts’, it is the Latin plural of datum ‘a piece of information’, literally ‘something given’. Although plural, data is often treated in English English as a singular meaning ‘information’, although Americans and Australians use ‘the data are…’. See also dice. In the Middle Ages letters could be headed with the Latin formula data (epistola)…‘(letter) given or delivered…’ at a certain day or place. From this comes date (Middle English) in the time sense. The date you eat is also Middle English but comes from Greekdaktulos ‘finger’, because of the finger-like shape of the plant’s leaves. (Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. “Data.” Def. Origin. Oxford Dictionaries. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/data>.)

The word Data is troubling on another front…

It is ironic that the word data is so vague because it always refers to something very specific.

First of all, the word data is useless without context. When someone suggests that you “get your data together” this can mean very different things to people coming from different perspectives:

To a classic IT support person, “get your data together” typically refers to all of the information related to your account on a local computer. In this case, it includes the more obvious files such as images, Microsoft Office files, PDFs; but it also includes the less visible, account-related files like the template and custom dictionary files in Microsoft Office™, or bookmark files from each browser.  

To a researcher, “get your data together” is likely to indicate only the numeric or experiment-related files related to their work; the collection of information that is the object of their analyses. The rest of the materials they actively created are likely to be referred to as simply their “files.”  The less visible or automatically created files associated with their account do not enter into this version of “get your data together.”

If we change the phrase slightly, to the more obvious but still ambiguous “get your data backed up,” only the context of “backup” gives us a clue that there might be more to the statement than just one’s research files. But my point remains;  be sure to provide context when using the word data!

Paula Lackie presents at EDUCAUSE: Connect Portland!

banner image with white text "Educause Connect, Portland, March 13-14, 2017" on green background with lightbulb logo

Paula will be leading a breakout session titled “Responding to Data Wrangling Challenges with a Student ‘DataSquad'” at EDUCAUSE: Connect Portland on March 13, 2017.

Session description:

The need for expert data management and manipulation has never been greater. This need pops up all over campus, for example, when making form data more accessible, creating a digital inventory of curricular materials, managing and/or manipulating research data, etc. There is also a steady stream of eager young programmers looking for real data experience. Matching their enthusiasm with the campus-wide need for data management to create a sustainable, solution-oriented, student-based, high-quality, data wrangling/carpentry service will be discussed in this session.