Bridging across bridges: engaging the geoscience research community in standards development

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

A number of academic researchers are committed to helping develop OGC standards, but the vast majority are not. Why do some get into it, and why don't more? For the past several years I've been looking for ways to stimulate academic involvement in geospatial standards development. I'm starting to see some potential, but the cultural & institutional barriers still dominate. 

Btw, I'll be using "involved" and "committed" in the sense of the old line about ham and eggs: the chicken's involved, but the pig's committed (you can google that phrase for an interesting history).

Basically, geoscience researchers are committed to mastering their science, but generally not to mastering data management, standards development, or other "translational" matters for making their research results accessible across domains. Such efforts present whole new learning curves of concepts and processes that have much less potential to advance a scientist's career. The measure of a scientist's career seems to be an index based on the number of written scientific publications and the number of citations of those publications in other publications. This is an arbitrary measure with a number of issues, but widely followed.

Even so, there's a growing, bubbling, emergent force in the sciences that's making interdisciplinary research more important, achievable, and professionally rewarding. The concepts and problems for understanding and modeling the Earth's climate, weather, water cycles, carbon flux, and many other interrelated subjects, are requiring increasing cooperation across subject domains. We're seeing major, long-term initiatives in the US, Europe, Australia and elsewhere now, starting to poke holes in the walls between subject domains, and between science domains and cyberinfrastructure development. I want to review a selective history first for context, then show how the pieces are starting to fit together.

Going back to the early 1990s, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)OGC and ISO TC211 started their work about the same time, with distinct but complementary missions to improve information sharing across nations, subject domains, and industries. These are just a few of a veritable ecosystem of formal, international standards development organizations (SDOs) and industry consortia that have gradually strengthened their alliances with each other over the years to better accomplish their goals (e.g., see recent article about OGC & W3C). One of these consortia, the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP Federation) which started in the US in the late 1990s, has been focused on collaborative research for Earth and space sciences. An international, all-sciences consortium (not just geo) emerged in 2013, the Research Data Alliance (RDA). Initial sponsors for RDA were the Australian government, the European Commission, and the US National Science Foundation (NSF); NIST and Japan are now getting involved. More about OGC, ESIP and RDA later. 

Internetworking among the geosciences goes back much farther, to the World Data Centres and Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical data analysis Services established by the International Council of Science (ICSU) to manage data generated by the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958). It became clear after the International Polar Year (2007–2008) that these bodies were not able to respond fully to modern data needs and they were thus disbanded by the ICSU General assembly in 2008 and replaced by the ICSU World Data System in 2009.

Another international networking initiative, started in 2005 by the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), is the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). This is being developed to provide tools for data discovery, access, and decision support, with tasks organized by societal benefit areas (SBAs): climate, weather, water, agriculture, energy, health, biodiversity, ecosystems, and disasters. Through the development of a web-based broker that distributes users' queries across dozens of Earth observation catalogues hosted around the world (e.g., Global Change Master Directory, Pangaea, and many others), you can now reach over 14 million data collections through GEOSS; this number is growing rapidly as more agencies' catalogues are registered, week by week. This may seem paltry compared with a Google search, but we're talking about qualified data-searching with geographic and temporal filters, as well as the ability to select specific authoritative international data catalogues. 

This is just a small sampling of efforts around the world to publish and internetwork Earth observations and geoscience data. But the consortia and initiatives just mentioned have emerged as key drivers in yet newer initiatives seeking to "bridge the bridges". The more some folks find out about the world, the more other folks want to be able to relate those findings with someone else's. And as computational and network technology have advanced, it's become both easier and harder: easier to find lots of data, but harder to know what it means, and how to relate all the pieces.

This is where standards come in: without standard vocabularies, taxonomies, metadata descriptions, and interfaces for discovery and access to data, a researcher has a daunting job just putting data from disparate sources into a common framework for analysis. No wonder geoscience researchers don't have time to mess with standards development; they're too busy finding, collecting, calibrating, converting and reformatting data from multiple sources, so they can run their intended geophysical models.   <wink>

Efforts in driving standards to better support geoscience research have varied globally, with three big players emerging: Europe, Australia and the US. Geoscience research in Europe is largely funded by the European Commission through initiatives like the Framework Programme (FP6, FP7) and now Horizon 2020. These programs have helped implement a European Directive called INSPIRE (Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community). This actually defines and mandates use of international standards for geospatial and geoscience information. Much of the core support for GEOSS has also resulted from FP7 projects, some of which are still underway, and more to come from Horizon 2020. Geoscience Australia and CSIRO are the main drivers for the Australian research program. 

I can't say much more about European or Australian research programs, as I've been most involved in the US. But the US situation is what I really want to talk about now. We have some catch-up to do, and it's starting to happen. 

Next: About the NSF EarthCube initiative and its potential relation to standards development

Thanks to Mark Parsons and Ingo Simonis for contributions 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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