Research demands “better” data

On behalf of the RFTE, a group of renowned scientists and experts – including complexity researcher Peter Klimek, simulation researcher Niki Popper, WU Vienna expert Jesus Crespo Cuaresma, Statistics Austria Director Tobias Thomas, political scientist Barbara Prainsack and science researcher Helga Nowotny – formulated a position paper on strategies for Austria’s data management.

From this, the Research Council derived a recommendation with three essential and urgent measures: the political prioritization of a national data strategy, the development of a comprehensive data infrastructure and the promotion of a positive connotation of the topic of data in the general public.

Pandemic has exposed data gaps

The pandemic has shown that the gaps in Austria’s data system are large, not only for science and the media, but also for the general public. It was hardly possible to answer with certainty in this country which population groups are actually most at risk of contracting the coronavirus. The same was true of the Ministry of Education when it came to finding out how many educators actually received CoV vaccinations.

PC screen with CoV data

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The pandemic has shown what data gaps arise when, for example, databases cannot be linked

Ultimately, reliable answers to seemingly obvious questions often fail for a long time due to a lack of availability or linkability of data or legal hurdles, questionable possessiveness on the part of institutions, more or less justified data protection concerns or a lack of technical know-how.

Data Governance Act as an opportunity for culture change

According to RFTE, there needs to be a cultural change in the handling of data and the necessary human and technical resources for this, the development of qualifications for the competent management of a complex, modern data ecosystem and uniform standards as well as legal, data protection and ethical framework conditions. At the heart of the required measures is, among other things, a “central information point” for the use of data from the public sector.

Such a system must be set up in Austria by the end of September 2023 anyway as part of the European Data Governance Act (DGA). So there is not much time left, as the co-author of the position paper, Michael Stampfer from the Vienna Science and Technology Fund (WWTF), explained to journalists. The state must be given a helping hand here, as there is still “a lot of work to be done”, according to Anton Graschopf from the RFTE.

Micro data center already started

The Austrian Micro Data Center (AMDC), which was launched a few months ago and allows designated research institutions access to comprehensive, anonymous register data under strict data protection conditions, could play an important role here.

“From the Council’s point of view, expanding the AMDC under the umbrella of Statistics Austria represents a sustainable and cost-efficient way of setting up an independent, central information point,” says the Council recommendation.

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In the micro data center of Statistics Austria, research institutions should have access to comprehensive data sets

So far, Statistics Austria has made most of its own data available, but the responsible ministers must decide whether the data from the government and social security funds will also be made available for research. The Research Council demands that the topic must be given political priority.

Missing data infrastructure is expensive

Anyone who wants “the state to work properly in this country has to speak up,” says Stampfer. If the new digital possibilities are not used and not used responsibly, “damage will occur”. That could be far more expensive than the necessary investments in a functioning data infrastructure, as can be clearly seen from the misdirected funding in the wake of the pandemic, according to the head of the WWTF: “In the future we would save a lot of money and trouble.”

The panel therefore recommends “enabling access to public register data in all federal ministries” and “closing data gaps in order to enable and support evidence-based policies”.

RFTE Chairwoman Sylvia Schwaag Serger now sees the political will for all of this as given, but one must “act quickly”. Then there would be an opportunity for Austria to play a real pioneering role instead of – as is so often the case – starting a laborious process of catching up, according to the innovation expert.

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