Image: Fabien Barral via Unsplash
Mon 15 Feb 2021

Sébastien Oliveau is Associate Professor at Aix-Marseille University and Director of PROGEDO (CNRS/EHESS), the French National Data Infrastructure for Social Sciences and the French Service Provider for CESSDA.

He is also a member of the Service Providers' Forum.

CESSDA asked Sébastien Oliveau to answer a few questions.

  1. How are you coping with the COVID-19 crisis and how do you make sure that you get work done?

    The entire PROGEDO organisation has been teleworking since March 2020. The teams have been very reactive to organise themselves and to protect themselves from the virus.

    Nevertheless, we had to reorganise ourselves quickly: buy the necessary equipment to work remotely and set up the necessary computer security conditions for working from home.

    In the end, I think we succeeded. I am very proud of everyone. Everyone made it possible for the work to continue and the service to the research communities was uninterrupted. However, it is not always easy to work from home.

  2. Before all this, what would a typical working day have looked like? How does it look now?

    There is no "typical working day", and this is one of the things I like about this mission of managing PROGEDO.

    PROGEDO is active on multiple fronts: at the European level, it represents France in the ERIC CESSDA, and coordinates quantitative data policy in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) for the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. At the national level, we support access to data through a dissemination portal that brings together several actors (PROGEDO, INED, Sciences Po) and we also support structuring projects in terms of data collection: we finance large surveys (ERIC SHARE, ERIC ESS, but also the GGP survey, EVS, ISSP, etc.), we also support initiatives to capitalise on existing data (economic data from the EURHISFIRM project for example, or the Ethmig Survey Data project).

    Locally, we have set up fourteen university data platforms in France, to make existing data known, but also to support members of the scientific community and students in the use of these data.

    My work is thus shared between a large part of coordination (which leads me to travel a lot by train in France, and sometimes by plane in Europe) and a more administrative part of setting up and following up project files.

    Today, I work from home: I do a lot of videoconferencing. I find it to be more tiring than physical meetings (even if it means that I avoid travelling), and it is not as efficient, because you lose the informal relationships that are often rich in new ideas and may miss out on vital information which is important for innovation.

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

    If we have to retain three main ways of supporting researchers over the last few months, here is my pick:

    - Our national and local teams support researchers through training programmes and participating in the development and implementation of research projects. These activities have increased over the last year.

    We support researchers on issues such as FAIR Data, data management plan (DMPs) and GDPR compliance. Several factors have shaken up the conditions for the collection and dissemination of data meaning that our support is increasingly valuable: the 2016 national "Law for a Digital Republic"; the implementation at a national level of European rules on the protection of personal data (EUGDPR); and the development of the Open Science Plan S at the Ministry of Higher Education and Research since 2018.

    - We support researchers in the collection and dissemination of data around COVID-19. Obviously, these are projects that needed reactivity, and the university data platforms were able to respond quickly!

    - We also continue less visible but essential technical negotiations with various data providers. The aim is to continue to expand our catalogue (> 100 new references in 2020) and to improve our services. For example, we will soon be able to use a DOI to identify all the data we distribute, even data sets that do not belong to us. This will greatly facilitate their citation in publications.

  4. 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 114 “covid” data sets. Which data sets stick out to you and why?

    It is always difficult to have to choose one set of data over another. I think that anything that can show the relevance of social sciences in the current context of a pandemic is positive. All the more so if it allows international comparisons (providing a perspective beyond local specificities) or fine geographical approaches, shedding light on local variations of phenomena.

    In the context of COVID-19, I am personally interested in studies that allow a better knowledge of the social factors of transmission, because the disease (and this one in particular) is not only a matter of medicine. I am also interested in the study of the consequences of the disease for society (from the point of view of social or gender relations in particular).

    So, rather than choosing a data set, I am taking advantage of this interview to advertise the World Pandemic Research Network (WPRN), which maintains a searchable global directory of the scientific resources available on the societal and human impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. It shows who works on what, where, in real time, and at a global level.

  5. What is the French policy to accomplish FAIR Data?

    The Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation is very actively engaged in "fairisation".

    The Open Science Plan ("Ouvrir la science") launched in 2018 is a very strong signal to all French research stakeholders.

    In this context, data “fairisation” is a key element, and support is important for all initiatives (for example, France is one of the funders of the Research Data Alliance).

  6. Your regional focus is diverse, from Western Europe to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), to South Asia. How does your department work across borders to address transnational population and development issues?

    In the 2000s, my doctoral thesis focused on India, and I then worked in Senegal. For the last ten years I have been focusing on the Mediterranean area, sometimes zooming in on certain countries: Spain, Morocco, Egypt and of course France. I therefore continue to have a special focus on foreign data.

    Nevertheless, PROGEDO is not intended to work on data outside the country, although we are present to support French research units abroad ( For example, last year we signed an agreement with the CEDEJ to support them in the promotion of the data they produce in Egypt in partnership with local institutions. I recently co-edited a journal issue in partnership with them on digital archiving in the Arab world.

  7. You focus mostly on population and development, spatial analysis (and geographic information), urbanisation. What project(s) are you working on at the moment?

    With Yoann Doignon from the University of Louvain, I am currently finishing a collective work on settlement. It is a volume that is part of a vast project to create an encyclopaedia of sciences. The field of Geography is coordinated by Denise Pumain as well as the sub-domain of demography. It is a formidable project led by the publishers ISTE and Wiley which aims to offer a synthesis of global current scientific knowledge available in several languages.

    We are also working with my colleagues from the Mediterranean Demographic Observatory (Isabelle Blöss-Widmer, Aix-Marseille University; Yoann Doignon, UC Louvain; Elena Ambrosetti, Sapienza in Rome) on a book on population dynamics and demographic change in the Mediterranean, which will be published by Springer at the end of the year.

  8. You are based in Marseille and have an office in Paris. How have your travelling routines been affected by the ongoing pandemic and what will they look like in the coming months?

    In France, we have the high-speed train (TGV), which puts Marseille just three hours from Paris. I do not travel there and back every day! I am lucky enough to have my parents in the Parisian suburbs, which also allows me to see them at the same time.

    We also have university data platforms in many French cities, so I used to travel a lot. I only used the train though, which allowed me to work while I am travelling. It is very comfortable and I like the atmosphere!

    However, since March 2020, my travels have all been replaced by videoconferences. It is efficient, but still less friendly. I hope that we will come out of this crisis quickly, as I am looking forward to meeting all the partners of PROGEDO, especially my CESSDA colleagues, in Bergen or elsewhere in Europe. If videoconferences allow us to make progress on issues, there are many exchanges on projects that take place in the informal time around the meetings (coffee and lunch breaks).

  9. What are you looking forward to in 2021 given the current situation?

    Like everyone else, I hope that 2021 will see the end of this health crisis, and I hope that its consequences will not be too tough on our societies. There are terrible individual situations, with many people suffering from the current conditions, from a health perspective, but also from an economic and psychological point of view.

    Professionally, 2021 will be an important year for PROGEDO. We have started the complete renovation of our data dissemination website, which is a major issue for our institution: to make the data accessible in the easiest possible way, while respecting the regulations. Our data must be "as open as possible and as closed as necessary" and this is a real challenge!

  10. If you were the President of the European Commission for one day, what would you decide or do?

    The European Union must re-engage in research, including its support for the social sciences. In a rapidly changing world, and especially given the pressing climate of dealing with an ongoing global pandemic, supporting populations, and coming out of the crisis requires an understanding of how societies function.

    We cannot hope to continue to live in the peace and comfort that we currently enjoy in Europe without massive investment in the construction and good functioning of the European Union. A strengthened Union would also help create global economic, political, and social stability and have positive ripple effects for the rest of the world. For this, we need common projects, and what better project than science?

More information:

Sébastien Oliveau's website

Sébastien Oliveau is on Twitter!

Previous article in this series: CESSDA asks ten questions to Tiziana Ferrari.