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Unidata turns 25

A sterling group toasts the program’s silver anniversary

Staff, founders, partners, and collaborators from around the country gathered at Center Green on October 15–16 to celebrate Unidata's accomplishments over the past quarter century and look ahead to the future.

The series of talks and open-mike sessions, plus a reception and dinner, drew about 100 people from UCAR/NCAR, NSF, NOAA, and a number of universities. On hand were many of the people most closely involved with Unidata's birth and growth. Speakers included Mohan Ramamurthy (Unidata director), Rick Anthes (UCAR president), Jack Fellows (UCAR vice president and UCP director), Cliff Jacobs and Dick Greenfield (NSF), Dave Fulker (Unidata's first director), and many others.

Dave Fulker Unidata's founding director Dave Fulker performs in a jazz quartet as part of a dinner reception during the anniversary celebrations.

"It's been an unbelievable 21 years of associating with the Unidata staff, users, committees, and community," said Mohan, who joined the Unidata Users Committee in 1989 while teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I've seen so many wonderful things take place in the community because of Unidata's work. Unidata is no longer just a program in Boulder, but a whole enterprise of users and partners."

The roots of Unidata extend back to 1977, when the National Weather Service decided to drop the free teletype and facsimile circuits that fed weather data to university meteorology departments in those pre-Internet days. The decision was a "bombshell," said former UCAR trustee John Dutton, also an emeritus dean at Pennsylvania State University. After years of debate, university faculty called on UCAR in 1982 to develop a solution that could provide departments with affordable data.

Mohan Ramamurthy and Perry Samson.Unidata director Mohan Ramamurthy with keynote speaker Perry Samson from the University of Michigan.

More than 80 people at a workshop in Madison the next summer asked UCAR to organize an NSF-funded system to be dubbed Unidata (a name coined by Dutton). Officially launched in 1984, Unidata was the first of the non-NCAR activities that are now grouped under the UCP heading.

Over the years, Unidata has grown from about 242 individual participants to more than 1,500 academic institutions and 7,000 organizations today, broadening geographically to include universities, labs, private sector companies, and institutions from around the world. The program has also expanded from a focus on synoptic and mesoscale meteorology alone to an emphasis on Earth system science and other geoscience fields, providing analysis tools and user support as well as data access. Unidata's Network Common Data Form (netCDF) is widely used both nationally and internationally in more than 100 countries. The program's core funding is extended through peer-reviewed proposals submitted every five years to NSF, the most recent of which occurred in December 2008.

Drawing on his 18 years as founding director, Dave Fulker (now Unidata director emeritus and an adviser in UCP) explored lessons learned from Unidata as an "experiment in collaboration." He noted that, from the start, the program was conceptually distributed; for example, Unidata has never operated its own data center. It has maintained a deep sense of community ownership, combined with strong leadership and patient support from NSF. The program has also managed to balance long-term development with immediate user support. "If there was a Unidata mantra in my time, it might have been: Don’t do anything centrally that the universities themselves can do well," he added.