Spotlight on Max Wilkinson

2 December 2011

Max Wilkinson

This week the spotlight is on Max Wilkinson, Head of Research Data Services, Information Services Division.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am the Head of the new Research Data Services in Information Services Division. This service is concerned with two things: providing centrally maintained data storage facilities for researchers and providing services on top of this storage. The new system and service will be called the UCL Research Data Service.

One thing UCL wanted to ensure was that this upcoming UCL Research Data Service was underpinned by a permanent organisation of data professionals, and this is the new Research Data Services organisation that I am creating in Information Services Division. This has become possible because of the Smart IT programme, which aims to enhance the IT services that support research and teaching.

The research data landscape is becoming increasingly complex with competing requirements of data storage, data movement, data management and data reuse. These issues exist on an institutional, national and international level. In addition Research Data Services is key to UCL’s response to policy from government, research councils and research charities to be the responsible custodian of primary research data.

It’s a simple proposition with complex challenges: provide central data storage service in a stable and secure environment to support research. Previously, this was undertaken at the research group or department level, but technology has given us the opportunity to produce so much more data; handling this volume gives us new challenges.

These challenges will vary depending on the discipline. A library holding digital data assets has a primary concern of data preservation and curation. Bioinformatics is concerned about moving large amounts of data between storage and computation facilities. Physical and mathematical sciences have vast amounts of data over which complex algorithms are run.

It’s a very big problem and the way we’re approaching this is to start with providing storage and store data in a responsible way. This is the foundation over which different disciplines can develop their requirements and inform the development of further services.

My role at UCL is to provide the capability, system and IT services for UCL researchers to store, reuse, leverage and make available these large volumes of data. Data are then available to: research teams, collaborators and, where appropriate or where required by the funding bodies, even to the public . We’re currently planning for multi-Petabyte in the next 2-4 years and this is set to increase.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I’ve recently re-joined UCL having worked previously at the Royal Free Hospital where I completed my PhD (Nephrology) and then worked as a post-doc. I moved to the National Cancer Research Institute, where we ran a programme called the NCRI Informatics Initiative that was a coordination of cancer researchers to facilitate data sharing and standards development.

I moved from there to the British Library to initiate the Datasets programme. This was a collection of activities that sought to define clear roles for an organisation, such as a national reference library, in the support of research focusing on data.

One of the achievements of the programme was accelerating a fledgling idea from one of the German technical libraries to provide a citation framework for data. When the British Library came on board, this evolved from a small group of technical libraries in Europe to an international association represented by 15 members across nine countries and is known now as DataCite: The International Data Citation Initiative.

The programme was also concerned with digital preservation, data repositories and credit and attribution networks.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

The biggest achievement of DataCite was providing a framework for research communities to reference their data in a manner similar to the citation of journal articles. This provided a clear incentive to share their data and the wider community to treat their data as first-class research objects. We saw this as a driver for responsible data management that in turn maximises the benefit of funded research.

What is your life like outside UCL?

I was born and brought up in Australia moving to London in 1996 when I started my research studies at the Royal Free Hospital. Most weekends I’ll be walking my four-year-old Rottweiler Dougal and volunteering as a Special Constable with the Metropolitan Police.

My main duties involve working on aid events like the London Marathon, Notting Hill Carnival and at least two Saturdays a month, you’ll find me patrolling Portobello market answering questions from lost tourists.