Free the Data

by Gabrielle DeMarco on April 6, 2011

There are eyes in the sky (and nearly everywhere else).

Right now, countless satellites, sensors, cameras, telescopes, thermometers, seismometers, and other technologies from thousands of research groups, universities, private companies, and government agencies are taking in massive amounts of data about our planet. This data, broadly known as geodata, provides important information on everything from climate change and earthquakes to ocean biodiversity and international crop health.

The problem is that most of the people harvesting this data will never speak with each other. Their data will never be shared. And strong opportunities to integrate that data to learn more and collaborate on important global issues will never be realized.

Earlier this month, Professor Peter Fox of the Tetherless World Research Constellation brought together more than 100 scientists, government officials, information specialists, librarians, and computer scientists to discuss ways to open the channels between researchers compiling geodata. Such wide-ranging collaborations are a theme with Fox.

The workshop was called GeoData 2011 and was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The meeting came at an important time, just days before a massive geologic event – a magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan.

In natural hazards, it is extremely important for data from the disaster to be integrated as close to the stage it is acquired as possible to allow for rapid response and decision making, Fox Says:

All of the key themes of GeoData 2011 are relevant to the data needs in response to recent natural hazards around the world … Integrated data products are essential and valuable in disaster response, but can often be difficult to create if individual data sources were not intended for integration when they were developed.

The overall goals of the people involved in the conference are to make sure that geodata coming from the multitude of sources and groups can be better maintained throughout its life cycle, better cited to make sure proper credit is given to the data developers, and better integrated to advance knowledge.

Such modifications to the way the scientific community develops and shares data could transform the entire practice of science, Fox says. The participants at GeoData 2011 are leading that charge.

Just imagine a world where a geologist can quickly gather and share data on an earthquake with the entire scientific community as well as disaster response agencies just moments after the quake hit. That data could help provide earlier tsunami warnings or help target relief efforts around the quake epicenter faster. Imagine a situation where meteologists, glacial experts, oceanographers, and policy makers can easily share and compare their data on our climate to develop a more complete picture of climate change.

A lot more detail on the conference including full presentations by the participants can be found on the Tetherless World website. The group is now working to uncover and prioritize gaps in how geodata is developed, used, and preserved to share with the NSF to aid the agency in developing new data initiatives. They also plan to develop communication strategies to get the rest of the research community on board with their vision for the future of scientific data.