Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Our First Data Carpentry Workshop

Update: for more information on Data Carpentry, please see their web site.

On May 8 and 9, 2014, 4 instructors, 4 assistants, and 27 learners filed into the largest meeting space at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) for the inaugural Data Carpentry bootcamp. Data Carpentry is modeled on Software Carpentry, but focuses on tools and practices for more productively managing and manipulating data. The inaugural group of learners for this bootcamp was very diverse. They included graduate students, postdocs, faculty and staff, from three of the largest local research universities (Duke University, University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University). Over 55% of the attendees were women and research areas ranged from evolutionary biology and ecology to microbial ecology, fungal phylogenomics, marine biology, and environmental engineering. One participant was even a library scientist from Duke Library.

Acquiring data has become easier and less costly, including in many fields of biology. Hence, we expected that many researchers would be interested in Data Carpentry to help manage and analyze their increasing amounts of data. To get a better idea of the breadth of perspectives that learners brought to the course, we started by asking learners why they were attending. The responses reflected a broad spectrum of the daily data wrangling challenges researchers face:

  • I'm tired of feeling out of my depth on computation and want to increase my confidence.
  • I usually manage data in Excel and it's terrible and I want to do it better.
  • I'm organizing GIS data and it's becoming a nightmare.
  • This workshop sounds like a good way to dive in head first.
  • My advisor insists that we store 50,000 barcodes in a spreadsheet, and something must be done about that.
  • I want to teach a reproducible research class.
  • I'm having a hard time analyzing microarray, SNP or multivariate data with Excel and Access.
  • I want to use public data.
  • I work with faculty at undergrad institutions and want to teach data practices, but I need to learn it myself first.
  • I'm interested in going in to industry and companies are asking for data analysis experience.
  • I'm trying to reboot my lab's workflow to manage data and analysis in a more sustainable way.
  • I'm re-entering data over and over again by hand and know there's a better way.
  • I have overwhelming amounts of NGS data.

The instructors discussed many of these kinds of scenarios during the months of planning that preceded the event. Therefore we were hopeful that the curriculum elements we chose from the many potentially useful subjects would qaddress what many of the learners were hoping to get out of the course. Here is what we finally decided to teach, and the lessons we learned from that as well as from the feedback we received from the learners.

We taught four different sections:

  • Wrangling data in the shell (bash): Differences between Excel documents and plain text; getting plain text out of Excel; navigating the bash shell; exploring, finding and subsetting data using cat, head, tail, cut, grep, find, sort, uniq (Karen Cranston)
  • Managing and analyzing data in R: navigating R studio; importing tabular data into dataframes; subsetting dataframes; basic statistics and plotting (Tracy Teal)
  • Managing, combining and subsetting data in SQL: database structure; importing CSV files into SQLite; querying the database; creating views; building complex queries (Ethan White)
  • Creating repeatable workflows using shell scripts: putting shell commands in a script; looping over blocks of commands; chaining together data synthesis in SQL with data analysis in R (Hilmar Lapp)

This was the first-ever bootcamp of this kind, so after it was all done, we had a lot of ideas for future improvements:

  • The SQL section should come before the R section! It makes more sense in terms of workflow (extract subset of data; export to CSV for analyses) but is also an easier entry for learners (easier syntax, can see data in Firefox plugin). The learners seemed to get SQL: there were fewer red sticky notes and questions were more about transfer ("how would I structure this other query") than comprehension ("how do I correct bash / R syntax").
  • Each section should include discussion about how to structure data and files to make one's life easier. Ethan did this for the SQL section, and it was very effective.
  • Students were already motivated when they came to the bootcamp; they didn't need to be convinced that what we were teaching was important. Many people are already struggling with data, and are hungry for better tools and practices. Our bootcamp filled up in less than 24 hours after opening registration, and there was virtually no attrition despite zero tuition costs—everyone showed up, and every learner stayed until the end of day 2.
  • What the best tool is for a particular job is still a big question. When would I use bash vs R vs SQL? Learners brought this up repeatedly, and we didn't always have good answers that didn't involve hand waving, perhaps in part because the answer depends so much on context and the problem at hand.
  • +1 for using a real (published!) data set that was relevant to at least some of the participants; for using this same data set throughout the course; and for having an instructor with intimate knowledge of the data (could explain some of the quirks of the data). #squirrelcannon
  • For the shell scripting section, an outline and/or concept map would have been useful to give learners a good idea upfront of what we were trying to accomplish. Without this, some learners (and helpers!) were confused about which endpoint we were working towards.
  • People who fall behind need a good way to catch up. Ways to do this include providing a printed cheat sheet of commands at the start of the session; providing material online (unlike the well polished Software Carpentry material, the material for Data Carpentry is still in the early stages of online documentation); and having one helper dedicated to entering commands in the Etherpad.
  • There is great demand for this type of course. Even without charging a fee, we didn't have any empty seats the first day, and 100% of attendees returned for the second day. Also, there were 62 people on the wait list! And we know that many people didn't even sign up for the wait list, even though they were interested.

There were also various things we wanted to teach but that came under the chopping block due to lack of time and other reasons. One of these, and one that learners asked about repeatedly, was the subject of "getting data off the web". It will take more thought to pin down what that should actually mean as part of Data Carpentry bootcamp aimed at zero-barrier to entry. It might mean using APIs to access data from NCBI or GBIF, but it's far from clear whether that would be meeting learners' needs or not. For most general-purpose data repositories, such as Dryad, most of their data are too messy to use without extensive cleanup.

All of the helpers including Darren Boss (iPlant), Matt Collins (iDigBio), Deb Paul (iDigBio), and Mike Smorul (SESYNC) did a great job of helping the students pick up new data skills. Finally, we'd like to thank our sponsors for their support, including NESCent for hosting the event and keeping us nourished, and the Data Observation Network for Earth (DataONE), without whom this event wouldn't have taken place.

For more on this workshop, please see this Storify.


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