[CODATA-international] IUSSP-CODATA FAIR Vocabularies Working Group

Asha CODATA asha at codata.org
Wed Mar 24 00:58:01 EDT 2021

IUSSP (the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population) and
CODATA have established a joint working group on FAIR Vocabularies for
Population Research
The working group is co-chaired by George Alter (University of Michigan,
IUSSP), with both Arofan Gregory (DDI Alliance and CODATA) and Steven
McEachern (Australian National University and DDI Alliance) from CODATA.

The Working Group responds to the growing movement to make data “Findable,
Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable” (FAIR).  Population research is an
empirically focussed field with a long tradition of widely shared, easily
accessible data collections.  The FAIR Principles point to ways that this
tradition can be enhanced by taking advantage of emerging standards and
technologies. The Working Group will focus on the development of FAIR
Vocabularies for population data, which is an essential step in making data
reusable and interoperable.

FAIR vocabularies yield benefits when data from different sources must be
combined. Consider the most basic variable in demographic analysis: age.
OECD has a list of 643 age categories, while the UN Population Division
copes with more than 1100 age groups.  If the meanings of variables in a
dataset are only available through human-readable documentation, like a
pdf, harmonizing data from two providers will remain a tedious manual
process.  However, if the age categories are linked to persistent
identifiers in machine actionable metadata, software can be coded to
harmonize age groupings.  If these operations are performed across dozens
of variables in hundreds of data sources, enormous amounts of human time
will be saved.

The joint IUSSP-CODATA Working Group will build upon the work of the FAIR
Vocabularies Group, who recently released “Ten Simple Rules for making a
vocabulary FAIR” <https://arxiv.org/abs/2012.02325>.  Most of their
guidance is straightforward, like “Determine the governance arrangements
and custodian responsible for the legacy vocabulary.” But some
steps require specialized expertise in standards like Simple Knowledge
Organisation System (SKOS) or the Web Ontology Language (OWL).  FAIR
vocabularies will also need to be maintained, requiring sustainable
institutions with the capacity to maintain necessary technologies.  The
Working Group will be advised by members of the FAIR Vocabularies Group,
which is chaired by Simon Cox (CSIRO Australia, and CODATA Executive
Committee), and experts from other scientific domains will be invited to
evaluate alternative strategies (e.g. centralized versus federated) and

The operational goal will be to work with three to five partners in
international organizations and academia to convert their existing
vocabularies to FAIR principles.  The group will give special attention to
coordinating with existing initiatives, like the terminology repository
supported by Statistical Data and Metadata eXchange (SDMX).

The ultimate goal of this initiative is to make demographic data more
interoperable by publishing controlled vocabularies that can be found and
acted upon by software.  This has the potential to vastly reduce the costs
of merging data from multiple sources for researchers seeking to use
population data.  The Working Group will learn where additional
technical development is needed and when community involvement through
IUSSP and other organizations is beneficial.  A two-year work plan is

Colleagues interested in learning more about this new initiative or
participating in the work of this Working Group should contact George Alter
(FAIRvocab at iussp.org).


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E-Mail: asha at codata.org
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