Data curation expert Nic Weber joins iSchool faculty

nicwebber_140px.jpgNic Weber doesn’t have all the answers. But he certainly has the tools to help find the answers to some big, important questions.

How do public institutions preserve information? How do they make it open and easy for the public to access? How do they ensure the information is accurate?

Weber, until recently a research associate at the Information School, wants to help answer those questions in his new role as an assistant professor. Weber will work on the iSchool’s Future of Libraries initiative.

“The future of libraries is a hard, complex, big problem, but also a lot of fun for me,” Weber said.

Harry Bruce, dean of the iSchool, said Weber’s skills will benefit the iSchool and all of the UW.

"Nic brings an expertise in data curation that is not being offered anywhere else on campus," Bruce said. "It's an area of expertise that is exclusive to the iSchool and it's absolutely fundamental. You cannot organize, simplify, visualize, interpret or predict from data that has not been curated.”

Bruce said he also appreciates Weber’s interest in using urban data and open data for social change.

“This work with public data, and how that will find its way into the professional practice of librarians is tremendously exciting,” Bruce said. “It aligns very closely to how we want our students to be thinking about future leadership roles in libraries."

Weber took a circuitous route to the iSchool. As an undergraduate, he studied history and English. He wanted to ask questions, however, that didn’t line up with the traditional style of diving deeply into a single text and producing a thick thesis.

He was more interested in bigger pictures. Could he ask questions across a wide range of literature? Across an entire genre?

Those questions led him to the University of Illinois' Library and Information Science Department. What he learned focused his interest in preserving information resources and making them open to the public. 

For his Ph.D. dissertation, Weber studied a group of climate scientists and software engineers who had created comprehensive climate records, using data collected on ships. The group was doing important work that provided a basis for research in climate science. However, the scientists had trouble with funding. That made them reconsider how to maintain their records, which were digital, of course, but also have a physical aspect in that they sit on computer servers that cost money for upkeep.

That raised interesting questions for Weber. How are collaborative projects evaluated for research funding? How do institutions create policies that preserve information and keep it open?

“My vision is to make the case for things like open accessibility of data and free and open-source software being sustainably funded because it creates a spillover effect," Weber said. "It increases the impact of these resources that are publicly funded in the first place.”

After completing his doctorate, Weber worked as a post-doc at the UW iSchool, where his research included designing a metadata schema and conceptual data model for the Qualitative Data Repository, a research archive hosted at Syracuse University. His ongoing work with the repository focused on facilitating transparency in qualitative research. So, when scholars build arguments based on data such as archival documents, images or maps, the public can easily access those same resources.

Weber’s work on the Future of Libraries initiative will include two projects to help the general population better understand emerging technologies. One aims to help young people critically evaluate resources on the internet. The second will have iSchool students work on open data initiatives with agencies such as the Washington state Department of Transportation and the city of Seattle.

Weber said that working with students really helps him as a researcher. His students raise important, fundamental questions that he can then consider in his own research. He will also teach two classes, Digital Preservation and Data Curation.

"Teaching is a huge part of what I do,” Weber said. “I love working with students in ways that I see them learn and grow and articulate important research questions. That's something that's deeply, deeply rewarding to me."

The diverse faculty is another reason Weber decided to keep his talents at the iSchool. The scholars have a wide range of backgrounds, which is intellectually rewarding and helps tackle complicated problems in a way that makes a positive difference.

"What appealed to me about the University of Washington, and the iSchool in particular, was that the mission of the university is very driven by service around social justice issues,” Weber said. “That is deeply important to me as a person but also to the type of scholarship I want to do.”