Bridging across bridges: engaging the geoscience research community in standards development (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of a multipart series. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

At the end of Part 2, I said I’d propose a way to leverage EarthCube to loosely-couple the NSF research agenda with the key IT standards development agendas in this segment. Let’s take another look at EarthCube, starting with the last paragraph from Part 2 of this blog, repeated here so you don’t have to flip back just for this bit:

Enter EarthCube:  The US National Science Foundation (NSF) EarthCube program is a long-term initiative to identify and nurture opportunities to make geoscience data, models, workflows, visualization, and decision support available and usable across all geoscience domains.  This is an ambitious undertaking.  Lucky for me, Anna Kelbert just published an excellent overview of the motivation and emerging structure for EarthCube, so I don’t have to repeat all that here. I’ll just say there are now about 30 funded projects in varying stages of completion, and more on the way.  These are in 3 categories: Research Coordination Networks (outreach to potential users), Conceptual Designs (core architecture frameworks), and Building Blocks (technology components). It is intended to be community driven and community governed.

Full disclosure: I’m working in multiple EarthCube projects now, and am on the Leadership Council. I’ve been active in EarthCube since 2011, and in the OGC since 1996 except for a couple years here and there; see my OGC staff bio for a summary.  So I’m pretty engaged and committed to both EarthCube and the OGC, with the goal of improving access and use of data and models across geoscience domains. I’ve also participated in ESIP discussions, and am starting to engage with RDA. I feel that the future for standards development to support the geosciences will involve all four of these consortia: EarthCube, OGC, ESIP, and RDA. 

Here’s how it could happen

Various details of EarthCube demonstration governance are still being worked out, but it has a Leadership Council, a Science Committee and a Technology and Architecture Committee. These committees are creating Working Groups to address both crosscutting and project-specific issues. For example, so far we are forming working groups for Use Cases, Testbeds, Gap Analysis, and Standards, among others.  The Standards Working Group will, among other tasks, provide guidance about science and IT standards that are relevant for use across the EarthCube framework. Just how this will work is in early stages.

My hope for the Standards WG is that they will also consider and act on ways in which current standards could be improved to address the science questions and use cases being studied in the context of EarthCube funded projects. These considerations could come from the work of the Testbeds, Gap Analysis, and other WGs.  But the Standards WG would be the most likely place in EarthCube to then consider which standards development organization (SDO) would be the best suited to follow up with: essentially, whichever SDO is the maintenance authority of the standards to be improved.  The Standards WG would then decide how best to coordinate with this SDO, and take initial steps to do that.

Among other possibilities, the Standards WG could propose a new WG of EarthCube stakeholders, that would coordinate with a parallel working group in the relevant SDO. This creates “loose coupling” between EarthCube and the SDO, which would be managed by the respective WG co-chairs, and which works best when some members of both working groups are in common. One example of this approach is the recent collaboration between OGC and W3C to integrate spatial data on the web. As they are being formed, EarthCube working groups can consider and apply to EarthCube for coordination funding, such as to cover travel expenses to an ESIP or RDA meeting for discussions; or to an OGC, W3C, or other SDO meeting for standards development. Technical papers would be expected and generated by and about this coordination, leading to broader community understanding and uptake.

Before this can happen the first time, EarthCube would have to negotiate an alliance or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with each desired SDO, to prepare institutionally for WG-level collaborations. These and other details will have to be worked out (with some risk of institutional barriers), but I’m optimistic that EarthCube could foster an organizational structure that would represent the academic community’s requirements and contributions in coordination with external SDO working groups.

A big factor in coordination of standards development across alliance partners is continuity of sustained communications and development work. Standards can potentially take several years to develop, which requires a collaboration team prepared to stay engaged together as much as possible. But the main focus for EarthCube working groups in this arrangement would be on the domain & computer science requirements, verification criteria, user interface guidelines, and educational outreach. EarthCube working groups seem adequate for this work, and will be especially effective when key participants are members of both EarthCube and the relevant SDO.

There will be many more discussions about this. If you have some constructive ideas, and/or want to get involved in helping to see this happen, please let me know. 

Thanks to the OGC senior staff for reviewing and suggesting edits to this segment. 

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the contributor alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of EarthCube's governance elements, funding agency, or staff. 

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