Response to a pandemic reinforces the critical need for research software and data

Across the globe from the earliest months of 2020 we have witnessed and likely participated in renewed engagement with science and evidence-based policy. Our nations have built rapid response centres incorporating clinicians, economists, business leaders, and policy experts, reinforcing the science advisory networks now a feature of many administrations. Epidemiologists have been captivating entire nations on a regular daily news cycle, for months on end. We're now on familiar terms with statistical tools tracking infection rates and forecasts of pandemic progress, each with our own preferences on where we source information, and which presentation we prefer.

The concurrent national efforts collecting, collating, and analysing data by Covid-19 researchers in every nation has been one of the compelling stories of this timeWhile we've been mesmerised by these stories, we've perhaps overlooked the essential role of research data and software in carrying their messages. Research data and software play a signficant part in how we access the information essential to these unfolding storylines. 

We now dependent on central data repositories such as the well known Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre, a tool developed and maintained by Dr. Lauren Gardner and her graduate students. Like many pieces of software we use in our research, the initial website was built in a day and put straight into use, first shared publicly on January 22nd. Achieving this sort of response depended a great deal on building on top of an existing ecosystem of tools, including a mix of commercial software such as ESRI, public cloud tools such as Google Sheets, and services such as Github. This is one example, there are many more.

While Dr Gardner's system became an authoratative single source of global Covid-19 data, many of the tools built by researchers were shared with free and open source code licenses. This has been key to enabling their replication for local use within different communities across the world. Alongside these tools, a diverse range of public and commercial infrastructures have opened their doors to supporting the response. These resources have been reallocated from within existing programmes and services, as has been the case in New Zealand and with NeSI where we've established priority support for Covid-19 related research.

As we come to the end of 2020, the essential role of research data and research software is ever more prominent. In the new year our communities engaging in eResearch are coming together at eResearch NZ 2021 and in other virtual and physical spaces. As we do, we at NeSI will be looking forward to talking about what we do to enable research communities, and to truly value the contributions of research software and data in underpinning contemporary science.

Meanwhile below are some references to key international activities and discussions covering these issues - I highly commend these to those seeking a fuller understanding of the challenges and opportunities in this space: