Field Samples: The Art (and Science) of Wrangling ‘Big Data’

Field Samples is a weekly Q&A asking researchers what they’ve been up to and what they’ve learned. Today, information manager/data scientist extraordinaire, Corinna Gries, talks the brave new world of “big data.”
Who are you, where are you from, and how did you get here? 
CorinnaGriesI am Corinna Gries, Information Manager for the North Temperate Lakes Long-Term Ecological Research (NTL LTER) site.  I was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany and went to school in Kiel, Germany where I received a PhD in Botany. How I got here is a long story that involves an early interest in databasing and programming, a self-taught career change while still doing botanical ecophysiology research, and a stop as information manager for the Central Arizona Pheonix LTER site.
Pretend we just boarded an elevator and you only have a one-minute ride to tell me about your work – can you capture it a few sentences? 
I archive data, which is sort of like running a museum or library for data. That is, the data are not in drawers, on shelves, or in display cases, but in a database and displayed on the web for everybody to find, download and use. This is a somewhat new discipline, called Information Management, Information Science, or lately Data Science and involves a fair amount of technical as well as science domain understanding.
What question did you ask and answer or do you hope to answer? What other questions might your work lead scientists to ask? 
My work is guided by the question ‘how can I process and provide research data and make technology more accessible to accelerate scientific inquiry for domain scientists’. This involves staying on top of and evaluating new technology, listening to domain scientists for what they need, while routinely curating data for the archive.
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Not to sound harsh, but why should someone NOT in the field of freshwater sciences care about your work? What’s a bigger picture implication, in other words? 
Obviously, I am not a fresh water scientist, so may be the question should be ‘why should a fresh water scientist care about what I do’. Well, I strive to make important, especially long term, i.e., old, data accessible. Data that allow a single researcher to scale their specific questions in time and space. Our environment is constantly changing, hence, data collected only a few years ago can never be recovered when lost. Therefore, it is important to properly archive them to remain usable and valuable and help us understand those changes and our environment as it is today.
What do you love about your work? What do you love, well, not-so-much? 
I guess, there must be an ‘archivist’s gene’ but I love when things are well enough organized on the web that people find them without having to ask. I do love programming as well. At least for those simple scripts we employ (we are not a software development shop), there is something very satisfactory about knowing that in the end you’ll get it right and the computer will do exactly what you asked it to do, and it will do it over and over again without complaint.
Although we have the most amazing administrative support in the Center, i don’t enjoy the time I have to spend on grant administration. In that respect, some grants are worse than other depending on how much creative research is involved.
Tell me about one funny, memorable, exciting or awesome moment from your work. 
It is exciting to find that something I programmed is actually being used. Google analytics will tell!
Where do you hope to go from here? New research questions? Continuing with this work? 
Currently I am assuming that I will do this until I retire. Although the overall question will remain the same, technology is changing so fast that the way to achieve the overall goals will change over the next few years. Also the fact that scientist are embracing technology will have an impact on how I do what I do.

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