From users to contributors: Making data services dynamic

Mohan Ramamurthy Director, Unidata

As we usher in the new year, I write this ­column to present a vision for a new ­generation of data services enabled by not only advances in information technology, but also shaped by a growing need for, and the power of, collaborative, multi­disciplinary science. The column is timely since Unidata, a UCAR program that I am privileged to be a part of, entered a new phase last month with the renewal of its core-funding proposal to NSF to continue its role as a cornerstone data facility for the atmospheric and related sciences. What started out as a project to provide weather data to meteorologists in U.S. universities a quarter of a century ago is today a program with a global reach, across many geoscience disciplines, benefiting all sectors of the scientific enterprise.

Mohan RamamurthyMohan Ramamurthy
Director, Unidata

A phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s historic ­Gettysburg Address is well suited to be applied to Unidata’s mission: A program of the community, by the community, and for the community. We at the Unidata Program Center live by that motto every day and remain focused on our mission to serve the community by providing the data services, tools, and cyberinfrastructure leadership that advance Earth system science, enhance educational opportunities, and broaden participation in the scientific enterprise.

Increasingly, the conduct of science requires scientific partnerships and sharing of knowledge, information, and other assets. This is particularly true in our field, where the highly coupled Earth system and its many linkages have heightened the importance of collaborations across geographic, disciplinary, and organizational boundaries. The climate system, for example, is far too complex a puzzle to be unraveled by individual investigators or nations. As articulated in the NSF Strategic Plan: FY 2006–2011, “…discovery increasingly requires expertise of individuals from different disciplines, with diverse perspectives, and often from different nations, working together to accommodate the extraordinary complexity of today’s science and engineering challenges.” The Nobel Prize–winning IPCC assessments are a prime example of such an effort.

Earth science education is also uniquely suited to drawing connections between the dynamic Earth system and societal issues. Events like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina provide ample evidence of this relevance, as they underscore the importance of timely and interdisciplinary integration and synthesis of data.

Our success in addressing such complex problems and advancing geosciences depends on the availability of a state-of-the-art and robust cyberinfrastructure, transparent and timely access to high-quality data from diverse sources, and requisite tools to integrate and use the data effectively toward creating new knowledge.

To that end, Unidata’s vision calls for providing comprehensive, well-integrated, and end-to-end data services for the geosciences. These include an array of functions for collecting, finding, and accessing data; data management tools for generating, cataloging, and exchanging metadata; and tools for submitting or publishing, sharing, analyzing, visualizing, and integrating data. When this vision is realized, users (Unidata is also developing services so a program or automated service can be at the other end, not just a person)—no matter where they are, how they are connected to the Internet, or what computing device they use—will be able to find and access a plethora of geosciences data. They’ll be able to experience how all of the aforementioned services work together, and use our tools and services both productively and creatively in their research, education, and other activities.

Creating a virtual community

Permit me to elucidate what that vision really means for you by drawing a simple analogy. Most of you are familiar with Amazon and eBay e-commerce sites and content-sharing sites like YouTube and Flickr. On the eBay marketplace, people can sell practically anything at any time and buyers can share their experience of purchasing a product or comment on the reputation of a seller. Likewise, at Amazon, thousands of merchants sell their goods and millions of customers not only buy those goods, but provide a review or opinion of the products they buy and share their experiences as purchasers. Similarly, YouTube and Flickr are sites tailored to video- and photo-sharing, respectively, where users can upload their own content and share it with millions of other users, including family and friends. What all these sites have enabled is a sense of a virtual community in which users can search and browse products or content, comment and rate those products from anywhere, at any time, and do this via any Internet-enabled device like an iPhone, laptop, or desktop computer. In essence, these enterprises have fundamentally altered people’s buying modes and behavior toward purchases.

I believe that similar approaches, appropriately tailored to meet the needs of the scientific community, can be adopted to provide and share geosciences data in the future. For example, future case-study data access systems, in addition to providing datasets and tools, will provide services that allow users to provide commentaries on a weather event, say a hurricane, as well as provide feedback on the quality, usefulness, and interpretation of the datasets through integrated blogs, forums, and Wikis. The systems would also allow users to upload and share products they derive, ancillary materials that they might have gathered (such as photos and videos from the storm), and publications and curricular materials developed, all through a single data portal. In essence, such case study collections will be “living” or dynamic, allowing users to also be contributors as they add value to and grow existing case study collections.

At Unidata, our goal is to provide a portfolio of integrated data services toward realizing the vision presented here so that the geosciences community can continue to address societally relevant problems such as weather prediction, atmospheric and oceanic variability, climate change, and the water cycle, and advance scientific discovery. You can find details of our plans at the Web link below. I welcome your feedback and comments.

On the Web

Unidata's five-year funding description