The Pistoia Alliance Launches Toolkit, Accelerates Implementation of FAIR Data Principles

June 15, 2020

By Benjamin Ross 

June 15, 2020  The Pistoia Alliance has launched a freely accessible toolkit to help companies implement the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) guiding principles for data management and stewardship. The project was funded by pharmaceutical and biotech companies including AstraZeneca, Bayer, Roche, Novartis, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and AbbVie. 

Collated by experts in the field, the toolkit contains numerous method tools, training options, and change management, as well as use cases, allowing organizations to learn from industry successes. Ian Harrow, Consultant Project Manager and Manager of the Pistoia Alliance’s FAIR Implementation and Ontologies Mapping Project, tells Bio-IT World that the organization plans to continue building out the toolkit’s capabilities in the coming months. 

While the FAIR principles have been well-known in academia since first being introduced in 2016, Harrow says the principles are just now beginning to be adopted by industry players. The Pistoia Alliance announced they were working on their FAIR toolkit in July last year after gauging their member’s interest in the principles, which Harrow says was resoundingly positive. 

“We were given the clarity that there’s a strong need within industry for these principles, which put us in a strong position to articulate the concept of a FAIR toolkit,” said Harrow. 

The FAIR guiding principles were established in 2016 as a blueprint for how computational systems to find, access, interoperate and reuse data with minimal human intervention. However, research has found that many companies are still struggling with implementation of the principles. 

The FAIR toolkit offers a wide range of services, Harrow explains. From tools such as data management plans and FAIR maturity indicators to training, workshops, and use cases, he says the goal of the toolkit is to evolve the way companies think about managing their data from the very outset of their projects. 

The Pistoia Alliance’s toolkit assists companies as they try to FAIR-ify their legacy data, Harrow explained. “There will be data which can be quite old but also quite valuable,” he said. “You have to work out which datasets are worth making FAIR—because there is an investment that comes with making data FAIR.” 

The toolkit also provides resources for companies and organizations to ensure their data are FAIR from the outset: making sure the data are “born FAIR.” 

“Think of a camera,” Harrow said. “When you take a picture, you get metadata as a part of your picture. You know exactly how the picture was taken, the aperture, the shutter speed, location, etc. All those details about how the image was taken are captured along with the image itself. It’s the same with science. Metadata, which captures how data are recorded, is so important. Lab instruments that are designed to capture the metadata, and for the metadata to be carried along with the data, is what FAIR is all about.” 

Although organizations have become increasingly aware of data as assets, data are often siloed, stored in varying formats, and difficult to retrieve or share. The Pistoia Alliance believes adopting the FAIR principles helps companies break down these internal siloes and cope with the growing volume and complexity of data generated. 

“It’s a psychological thing,” Harrow said. Discussions about data seem to boil down to the question: whose data are they anyway? 

“Usually a scientist is trained to gather data for whatever reason, and there’s a tendency to regard it as your data,” he explained. “But it doesn’t belong to you, the scientist—it’s the company’s data; it’s a corporate asset.” 

Harrow says the toolkit provides resources to help shift away from this mindset, allowing scientists to find new ways to reuse their data and gaining true value from it. While there’s no such thing as completely FAIR data, Harrow believes that as the FAIR toolkit grows alongside the FAIR landscape, so will the FAIR-ness of data as a whole. 

Editor's Note: Ian Harrow will be presenting the FAIR toolkit at the upcoming Bio-IT World Conference & Expo, October 6-8, as part of the Data and Metadata Management track