As she moves to an exciting new role, we learn more about Louise Corti’s 20 years at the UK Data Archive, 30 years at the University of Essex, and important roles within the UK Data Service and its forerunners.
Louise, tell us about your journey in data
My first role at the University of Essex was in 1989, just after I’d finished my social research methods Masters degree at Surrey. I worked as a Research Officer on the development of the British Household Panel Survey (which evolved into the Understanding Society survey). I supported work on the scoping, design and methodology of the survey, and later on data cleaning, variable derivation, and data analysis.
After a year of largely solitary data analysis, albeit leading to research publications, I came to realise that this kind of work might not be for me. I’m a people person and missed having the chance to engage and collaborate with others.
Around this time, the new Qualitative Data Archive (Qualidata) was set up as a small pilot in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex and I jumped at the chance to join it, as a new research challenge.
As a broad-spectrum methodologist, I never saw this shift from quantitative to qualitative data as a huge leap. I enjoy working with all sorts of methodologies and data and felt that bringing the skills I had in quantitative methodology to qualitative data management could be of benefit, and perhaps even inspire others. There I helped pioneer systematic approaches to qualitative data archiving and started to publish in this field.
It was an exciting time, particularly as the very concept of data sharing attracted some vehement opposition from a number of leading qualitative scholars. Arguments against sharing grew in the literature, but in Qualidata we’d developed a positive narrative, extolling the virtues of opening up precious closed data resources. This really helped me hone my skills in data archiving and sharing evangelism’! Looking back now, it is surprising to me that reproducibility was shunned, but it was likely out of concern borne out by the very personal nature of some quali research.
Then, in 1999, the ESRC had a major landscape review and changed its funding model, meaning that a raft of smaller infrastructures, like Qualidata, would no longer be funded.
Given that I already had links with the UK Data Archive, when I applied for, and was offered a job there as Head of User Services, it seemed the perfect opportunity to persuade the Archive’s Director of the time, to complement the Archive’s survey repository with the qualitative data I had been working with. The suggestion was accepted, the whole quali team were bought over and integrated, and funding from the ESRC applied for and received. There I worked with colleagues to ensure that qualitative data became a core part of the Archive’s offering.
My role within the UK Data Archive has changed and developed over the years since, including at different times responsibility for training and user workshops, outreach and communications, collection development, curation and access and secure data services, meaning I have now worked with all stages of the data lifecycle in the Archive, from pre-ingest to publication and supporting data users. There has been a lot gained by joining all parts of the data pipeline together, particularly a better understanding and appreciation for many of all the different processes involved.
I’ve also been part of bringing a fair share of grant money into the Archive for a range of projects and innovations, as well as playing a collaborative role in producing the core proposals for the main ESRC award over the twenty years.
I’m really proud of the work I have done with the Secure Lab team to bring their important work more into the mainstream of the Archive’s work, and for it to gain better recognition.
I was very excited when the opportunity came about to work more closely with partner organisations including Jisc and the University of Manchester to form the Economic and Social Data Service and later the UK Data Service.
What do you feel you’ve brought to your roles at the UK Data Archive?
I think the biggest thing is that I do like a challenge!
It’s also fair to say that I enjoy finding pragmatic approaches to ideas and problems, including capacity building. It’s really important to me to work through an entire process, right through from the initial decision on how to set it up, through to trialling and adjusting it and finally communicating with users and colleagues and training them how to follow the process through.
I love seeing new approaches and initiatives embedded in different parts of the data lifecycle and backing those up with clearly-defined data policies.
I feel I’ve also contributed rigour through my methodological training and through my deep understanding of the need for reproducibility. My commitment to the scientific method has always underpinned this work.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m passionate about my work and that passion has led me to some amazing opportunities to write about and otherwise share the work we’ve done in the Archive and the Service.
Often, I’ve ended up developing the writing and sharing in my own time. The job is such a full one, but I never want to miss an opportunity to share our expertise and knowledge. I’m sure this – along with recognition of my expertise – is why I’ve been asked to join a number of advisory boards and reviews for international organisations, as well as helping develop external funding bids. This passion has led to travel to other countries to share experience and support the development of their own new data services and repositories.
What are you most proud of?
I’m proud that my expertise and knowledge has been recognised on a national and international level.
I’d say I’m also very proud of being a pioneer in this field, leading and influencing policy. And, of course, being associate director for the UK Data Archive and working with the other Service directors in the UK Data Service to help shape its direction and approaches.
I’m really proud of having been a pioneer in methodology in terms of archiving and providing access to qualitative data in the 1990s, and following from that, the new work on Research Data Management, and early moves into licencing and data citation.
I am also delighted that some of the early career staff I have managed, and in some cases mentored, have gone on to fantastic new career opportunities. For me, enabling learning opportunities for those who are keen to succeed is really important.
And I know I can be proud of being a brave person. In my personal life, I won’t flinch from riding a motorbike or going scuba diving with sharks, and in my work life, I’ve not hesitated to embrace taking on new challenges and roles.
Image: Louise Corti
And what are you going to miss?
Without doubt it’s the people. I have been so fortunate to work with some lovely and amazing people. I’ve had such support from Kevin Schürer and Matthew Woollard, our Directors, as well as talented, passionate colleagues to work alongside.
I’m going to miss being in the academic environment, not just the practical things like access to eduroam and library resources, but also being in a place with a uniquely questioning and exploring atmosphere.
I’m sure I’ll also miss some of the international travel too. I’ve been lucky to visit a range of interesting places, meet dedicated and sometimes inspirational international peers, and support them in integrating practices in what can sometimes be very different cultures.
Director of the UK Data Archive and UK Data Service, Matthew Woollard said,
We are grateful for everything which Louise has brought to the UK Data Archive over the last twenty years. Her skills and experience and her enthusiasm and rigour have been in no small part responsible for the success and development of the Archive and the services it provides. I want to wish her all the very best in the next part of her journey in data.