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SEA Currents March 24th, 2019
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Reflections on Big Data in Healthcare: Exploring Emerging Roles

Posted by on April 5th, 2018 Posted in: Data Science

Written by: Monica Riley, Serials Librarian, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA

As librarians and information managers, it is our duty to stay abreast of emerging trends and technologies and how they might impact our users. Health Sciences librarians can and should get involved with big data in healthcare, but to what extent I’m not certain. There are many factors that may present challenges in providing data services including staffing, knowledge and expertise, budget, and technology deficiencies. Health Sciences librarians need to think strategically and collaboratively about what type of data services they might be able to provide, and how best to execute them. Recognizing that all aspects of data management require a specific skill set, areas for training and continuing education should be identified, and these newly learned skills put into practice on a consistent basis.

As the trend of big data and research data management becomes more massive, organizations should consider incorporating data services into their strategic plans and developing priority areas with specific timelines. While I don’t think it’s necessary nor always feasible for librarians to become data scientists, at minimum we need to be prepared to answer questions related to big data and point to resources. One thing libraries can do immediately is assemble a big data/data science working group, with a cross-section of staff who can assess the needs at their institution, and contribute unique perspectives and ideas on how best to address those needs. Through these discussions the working group can develop an action plan and establish big data initiatives. Something as simple as creating an online resource guide or other research guide with general information, tools, and resources for big data is a good way to test the waters without getting into the complexities of big data. This could be either a collaborative or individual effort.

Thinking about a user-centered approach as Elaine R. Martin discussed in her article “The Role of Librarians in Data Science: A Call to Action”, identifying user needs is the first step in determining whether or not you can successfully provide data services. Some questions that would need to be addressed are, what type of data services are your users asking for? And who on staff is readily available with the knowledge and expertise to handle those requests? This will most likely involve partnering with other departments, as well as getting valuable feedback from users.

As health sciences librarians attempt to make sense of and define their specific role in big data, for the immediate future I feel our talents would be best suited in a supportive role. Providing consultations and assistance with research data management, bringing awareness to big data resources, and possibly facilitate training on big data tools are just a few ways we can contribute. How we gather, analyze, store, and preserve information is constantly evolving, so should our roles as librarians. Although big data can be very complex, and the idea of assuming these responsibilities can be extremely daunting, I think it’s important for us to remain steadily involved in these discussions. As others may not recognize the skills and value that librarians bring to the table, we need to advocate for ourselves and create opportunities to become a part of this big data movement.

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