Information Management at Your Service


To improve the transparency and help to ensure the performance of future large-scale projects is the mission of an information management (IM) group at Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY). DESY is the German research centre for development, construction, and operation of large-scale accelerator facilities for basic research in particle physics and investigations with synchrotron radiation.

Research in particle physics is traditionally performed in international collaborations, groups of some hundred physicists from all over the world, each carrying out a long-term particle physics experiment as a joint project. Given the complexity of the work and numerous individuals involved, exchanging information in international research collaborations presents major challenges as an example illustrates. The next generation of accelerators will reach a new dimension because only one facility--a 33-km-long linear collider--is planned in the world to be built in the United States, Japan, or Europe at DESY.

To tackle this challenge and to ensure a smooth exchange of information internally and worldwide, DESY has set up an IM group to support the needs of the scientists. A major task of the IM group at DESY is to match the information people request with the information they actually need for their work and with the information they offer to others--which is far less trivial than it may seem at first glance. If, for example, a diagnostic component has to be inserted into a beam line, the project team needs to know the available space, i.e., the dimension of the gap between the neighbouring components into which it should be inserted. As a matter of course, the team requests a drawing that shows the two components, from which the distance could be determined. The engineering department, on the other hand, might offer only drawing sets for each component, but not of the whole beam line. In this case, the information request cannot be fulfilled, although the information need could have been satisfied by a simple measurement on location.

IM thus helps to establish the information supply of teams and their members. It requires understanding "the business needs," organising business processes, and introducing and operating supporting information systems. The following is a typical example for IM within a project.

Planning a new accelerator involves, among other things, designing the machine, performing civil engineering, planning the layout of the technical infrastructure, and handling public affairs. Overall, the process is very similar to that of plant construction. Expert groups work on each topic, guided by experience, with solutions in their minds. As work proceeds, the areas begin to overlap. Scientists require the experimental hall to be large enough for the detector and all its supplies, but at the same time, public affairs often requests that it be as small as possible for environmental reasons. The detector should not use certain inflammable material for safety reasons, and power and water supplies should be connected to the public networks, and so on. Each planning decision has to be documented and communicated, and impact analysis on other work in progress has to be performed. What is needed is an efficient toolset for creating documentation and for classifying, tracking, analysing, and reporting every single documentation item, together with a set of rules for specification and tool usage. To provide such a toolset is the task of an IM group.

The described toolset is called a Requirements Management System (RMS). If it is available at the right time, it will be used and probably adapted. If it is still in the planning stages, it will likely arrive too late for implementation, and other (probably less efficient) methods would already have been established. Services such as the RMS are frequently recognized only "a posteriori", i.e., after they are successfully (and sometimes even unexpectedly) introduced. They imply long advance planning and sometimes also a long wait for success, as setting up information systems for large-scale accelerator projects can take several years.

Providing services means to perform and to sell. Services are highly required and used when available, but during project initiation they are often neglected and sometimes not even requested. Foreseeing what will come and being ready in time, nevertheless, are some of the challenging key properties a service provider must have. Having a profound understanding of two disciplines-the profession and the target field-is another. The technical work involves much business process (re-)engineering (BPR) (i.e., understanding and optimizing work methods) and software engineering. The practical work is often compounded by the necessity of striking a balance between the customer's needs, on the one hand, and, on the other, the technical, time and other constraints that limit what a service provider can offer.

Having a strong understanding of the science behind such a large-scale project is obviously an advantage for people working in IM, particularly when it comes to communicating with the parties involved. As with every interdisciplinary position, "ideally the candidate has both educations"--in science and in management. But such individuals are rare, and information management is more commonly a part of the education computer scientists receive, which covers the required methods and technical skills. In practical terms, it might be more prudent to start with a scientific education and gain experience in the field of particle physics, in this case, and then specialize in computer science later on.

Does it pay off to work as a service provider? As alluded to already, services play a subordinate role in scientific planning and analysis and are hence in a position to permanently prove their usefulness. This places high pressure on the work, but it also offers a significant opportunity for broader involvement. Services--at least IM--are of general purpose, and they can be adopted in several projects with different topics, thus creating exciting and diversified daily work. IM is already adopted at very early project stages, which gives the opportunity to contribute to the formation and later success of the project. And as the methods are the same across different fields, IM places its providers in a good position to change the direction of their work, if they need or want to.

Jobs for IM specialists are not limited to the scientific community. An increasing number of opportunities can be found in industry, where the demand for interdisciplinary education and soft skills is growing. Performing IM in a scientific community may thus serve as a good basis for a later career in industry.

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