Image: Fabien Barral via Unsplash
Wed 28 Oct 2020

This new series of COVID-19 interviews is targeted at researchers. In this second article, we talk with our CESSDA COVID-19 Ambassador to gain insight into the current situation.

The Commission recently launched a Manifesto for EU COVID-19 Research to maximise the accessibility of research results in the fight against COVID-19. CESSDA endorses this manifesto and wants to ensure that researchers can continue their work, partly thanks to the many services offered by national data archives.

Helena Laaksonen, Director of the Finnish Social Science Data Archive (FSD), was appointed as CESSDA's official COVID-19 Ambassador in June.

CESSDA asked Helena Laaksonen a few questions.

  1. Do you think that the importance of social science data will be better recognised as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic?

    The current COVID-19 pandemic seems to appear as mainly a medical question for politicians even though the effects are also economic with restaurants closing temporarily or shutting down for example. The social science research community could make more noise as they can offer relevant data even without yet having access to results from COVID-19 related studies. We can look at comparatively similar situations from the past.

    It is my belief that it is not only medical research into COVID-19 which can and will produce answers to the challenges we face. I therefore wish for more recognition of the importance of social science data, however this will require more work from experts and researchers in the area.

  2. What is your role as CESSDA COVID-19 Ambassador?

    My role is very much of a ‘middle woman’ so to say. Several people have reached out to me over the past weeks and months, asking me about CESSDA data archives, and staff in various data archives as well. I have been collecting questions and trying to find answers for these interested parties. My role has therefore been to be a contact point and to relay relevant information.

  3. All COVID-19-related metadata are being harvested to the CESSDA Data Catalogue as they become available by the service providers. There are currently over 30 “covid” data sets. Which data sets stick out to you and why?

    My first impression is that the diversity of data in the CESSDA Data Catalogue shows that service providers archive a variety of data. FSD does not usually archive medical data, for instance, though some service providers do. There is not only social or political science data there, but a range of data. For me, the most interesting data are those that deal with social phenomena in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    I see the pandemic as a social phenomenon. You asked me which data sets stuck out. I therefore pick the GESIS Panel Special Survey on the Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Outbreak in Germany and the Estimating the effects of non-pharmaceutical interventions on COVID-19 in Europe, model fit for Bayesian model 2020, which is provided by the UK Data Service. These are examples of what the social sciences can provide.

  4. What has changed for your data archive since the onset of the pandemic? Have certain services been prioritised and why?

    For our data archive not that much has changed for our clients, which are researchers and students using and depositing data. Everything is digital and all can be done online. What has changed is where we are working. We are at home. If COVID-19 had broken out a year earlier, it would not have been possible.

    As part of the merger between the University of Tampere and Tampere University of Technology into the new Tampere University, FSD’s servers were transferred to a data centre hosted by the University. All FSD services are run in the new server infrastructure; these include, for instance, the FSD website, Penna data collection tool, and Aila Data Service. We also use university laptops and the IT systems and support are now offered by the university.

    The University created a special VPN connection for FSD’s use, so that we can access our own software and tools and for example the data can be processed and published, and even software development teams can work from home. These technical upgrades were sped up as a result of the pandemic hitting Finland. At least in that sense, the timing was perfect, even though I would of course rather not have experienced this situation. What’s more our carbon footprint decreased as a result of having a centralised server solution (read more here).

  5. Can you highlight three main ways that your archive has supported researchers over the last few months?

    The three main ways that we have supported researchers are:
    1) The services we already have (e.g. reuse and downloads of data have so far been higher than last year. This is the case for every month since COVID-19 began, compared to previous years at the same time.).
    2) Data ingest via the data portal, processing and publishing data (without having to be in the office).
    3) Guides on data protection and consent (how should a research subject be informed about the data used, etc.), on Research Data Management, as well as a methods guide. These guides are used by students and sometimes methods lecturers. FSD intends to publish an updated version of the methods guide, since the current version dates back to 2003, and its use is growing. It is actually the most popular service on our website!

  6. CESSDA launched a COVID-19 webpage earlier this year. How do you see this evolving? Do you have any suggestions of how we could show the importance of our activities for SSH research?

    We are already and will continue to promote any relevant data being deposited and remind researchers about data sharing so that they collect the data correctly and follow the legislation. Personally, I am a bit worried in these times that people have been too busy collecting data quickly and not properly considering that the data should be available for reuse especially for future similar pandemics.

    We had a discussion at the Service Providers’ Forum meeting a couple of weeks ago about COVID-19 and how to respond to the pandemic from a research data perspective. We exchanged views about responsibilities, topics, resources and timing.

    I think that we should organise some webinars that relate to COVID-19. The topics and details still need to be discussed, though the overall aim is to assist researchers doing research on COVID-19 from a social science or humanities perspective.

  7. How can the data collected by large international surveys such as the ESS, ISSP, EVS, WVS and Eurobarometers service the research community in the aftermath of the coronavirus?

    These surveys can serve the research community in interconnected ways. Some of them now have specific COVID-19 questions. For example, the ESS has included 20 questions in its survey round 10 (2020/21), and SHARE carried out telephone interviews in June including a special “SHARE COVID-19” questionnaire to see how older people are coping with the health and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic.

    The surveys include a variety of questions about trust and health and what is special about these surveys is that they are harmonised so that you can make country comparisons. You can also do that with surveys found in the CESSDA Data Catalogue, though you need to take into account that they are not harmonised.

  8. The second principle of the manifesto is to “make scientific papers and research available in open access without delay and following the FAIR principles via preprint servers or public repositories (...) In particular, make COVID-19 research data available through the European COVID-19 Data Platform.” How have CESSDA national data archives been contributing to this platform?

    The platform appears to be mostly focused on medical data. It could be an issue if there is a specific platform where the European Commission wants researchers to upload the data then that is problematic. If it’s just the metadata that is fine.

    Furthermore, what is the timespan for keeping the platform online? I think that it is a good idea to have a place to find all data related to COVID-19 but when so many resources are put into the service then you should think about how the data and research is managed afterwards. This is why we have data archives taking care of long-term preservation where data is findable and accessible long into the future.
    My general comment on the manifesto is that I think that it is a good thing that results are open and shared so that we can better tackle the pandemic. That way we are focusing on data access.

    However, it is important to remember that data is collected and managed so that it is findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (FAIR) in the long run. By abiding by the FAIR Data principles, we ensure that we as a society are ready with easy access to relevant data when the next pandemic hits us.

  9. How can academia-industry joint research help us come out of this pandemic?

    I believe that an important area where academia-industry joint research can contribute to a safer future is cooperation in developing both services and software that take into account human behaviour and attitudes, as well as an urban environment which can accommodate our changing needs.

  10. What resources would you recommend to social science researchers interested in COVID-19?

    It depends on what kind of research they are doing and what kind of methods they use, and what research problem they have. They can find data from a great many service providers around Europe in the CESSDA Data Catalogue and in the ICPSR data catalogue which comprises both US and data from other countries. The ICPSR also has a COVID-19 Data Repository.

    If researchers are more interested in language data, they could look at the Language Bank of Finland and its equivalent in other countries, accessible via the CLARIN tools and services. These language banks host materials from previous pandemics, for example from the Spanish flu. They contain a wide variety of text and speech corpora and tools for studying them.

    On a general note, I would also recommend researchers to turn to national archives and existing European Research Infrastructures such as CESSDA, CLARIN, DARIAH, ESS, etc.

More information:

COVID-19 and FSD’s services
New server environment improves reliability and conserves energy
Find out more about the Finnish Social Science Data Archive (FSD).
Find out how CESSDA is supporting researchers on our COVID-19 page. Our flagship product, the CESSDA Data Catalogue is a platform for researchers wanting to find and reuse social science and humanities research data, including on issues related to the pandemic. All COVID-19-related metadata will be harvested to the Data Catalogue, as they become available by the Service Providers.

See the previous article in this series: COVID-19 Interview series – Political elections – Bernt Aardal.