EarthCube Update: Impressions from the Charrette


EarthCube is a joint effort of the NSF Geosciences Directorate and Office of Cyberinfrastructure. Its goal is to use technology and knowledge management techniques to increase the productivity and capability of researchers and educators working at the frontiers of Earth system science. (If you're new to EarthCube, you may want to read these previous posts.)

Three members of the Unidata Program Center staff attended the EarthCube charrette held in Washington D.C. on November 1-4, 2011. The following is Unidata Program Director Mohan Ramamurthy's summary of the meeting. Impressions from Unidata Program Center staff members Russ Rew and Ben Domenico are also available.

By Mohan Ramamurthy
Director, Unidata Program Center

The EarthCube Charrette was intended to be the first stage of an iterative process for engaging the geosciences community toward the building of a community-driven cyberinfrastructure. One of the expected outcomes of the Charrette was "to indentify and focus the most useful and innovative ideas to meet the broad geosciences vision of EarthCube." The Charrette was also a new approach for the NSF to engage the geosciences community and shift the responsibility for "coming together" and reaching consensus on EarthCube issues on to the community.

Since the goals of EarthCube for creating a community-based geosciences cyberinfrastructure were closely aligned with Unidata's mission, the UPC was keenly interested in providing input to and shaping the EarthCube initiative. In response to NSF's request for community input, the UPC staff had submitted white papers dealing with topics such as Technology and Cyberinfrastructure Solutions, EarthCube Designs, Community-based Governance Models, Brokering Approaches, and Data Interactive Publications.

The interest in EarthCube has been impressive and it far exceeded NSF's initial expectations, with the community submitting 114 white papers on a wide range of topics and 185 responses to a Science Requirements survey, in addition to the numerous commentaries and blogs that were posted on the EarthCube online community website by over 500 active users. The Charrette itself was attended in person by about 140 people, with another 100 or so virtual participants taking part in the proceedings remotely. As mentioned above, Unidata staff members Russ Rew, Ben Domenico, and Mohan Ramamurthy participated in the Charrette, with Ben also representing IEEE as that organization's proxy.

The Charrette began with an overview presentation on the goals of EarthCube and a summary of the results of the Science Requirements survey. The overall response to requests for input on EarthCube, to quote NSF officials, has provided an "unprecedented view of the pulse of the geoscience community." The following themes and observations were also noted in the white papers and survey results:

  • The current research paradigm works, but clearly needs revision
  • Data are essential, but can be problematic to use
  • Similarities abound, but dialog between disciplines is lacking
  • Interesting solutions have been proposed, but silos are hard to break down
  • Complete designs were proposed, but none were comprehensive
  • Community and NSF want increased productivity and new capabilities, but options must be narrowed

At the Charrette, participants were grouped into three domains: Atmospheric Sciences, Oceanography, and Earth Sciences. But throughout the meeting, participants, equipped with an array of established communication tools like post-it pads, markers, flip-pads, and colorful, star-shaped stickers, broke into small, often self-selecting breakout groups that delved into different aspects of EarthCube's design, with the goal of defining an overall vision for EarthCube as well as identifying the capabilities needed for realizing that vision and the barriers we face in getting there.

The Charrette provided an unprecedented opportunity for extended brainstorming and face-to-face interaction among geoscience and cyberinfrastructure communities on the design of EarthCube. At the same time, given the diversity of participants, it was not surprising that a multitude of perspectives were shared and debated. The discussions spanned broad science questions that defined data and software requirements, and identified proven and emerging information technologies, different governance models, and organization structures. Throughout the meeting, NSF officials and an excellent team of professional facilitators were seeking common solutions, encouraging collaborations between self-forming groups, and making sure that the community process and the Charrette were a success. During the course of those three-and-a-half days, there were many side-bar and in-a-bar conversations as well as discussions on a range of EarthCube related topics in Birds-of-a-feather evening sessions.

By the end of Day 3, the Charrette participants had generated and voted on a list of 99 capabilities. The following top five capabilities emerged:

  1. Cross disciplinary ontologies that are interoperable, including a geosciences-wide common data model
  2. Tools to probe, validate, verify and visualize all data
  3. Data brokering services that translate between standards (Brokering of some form appeared twice, at #3 and #4, but I counted it only once for the purpose of this write up)
  4. Networking of existing data repositories
  5. Social networking at a professional level to support knowledge sharing between disparate teams of computer scientists and geo scientists

On the final day, attendees were asked to form self-selected groups with similar interests and submit two-page white papers on one of the following topics:

  1. Strategic Organizational Framework for EarthCube
  2. Development of a New Capability
  3. Progress on a Critical Milestone for current capabilities

It was indicated that the two-page papers produced at the Charrette were event exercises and only some of which might be appropriate for expansion into an activity and proposals to further EarthCube goals.

NSF views the Charrette as an important step in the process for building EarthCube. By most accounts, the meeting was successful in that regard, as it set into motion the community process. Even though the days were long and meetings exhausting at times, overall the Charrette provided an excellent opportunity and a convenient venue for the UPC staff for interaction with professional colleagues, networking, and in establishing new collaborations.

NSF plans to release a Dear Colleague Letter soon to provide additional guidance to the community on EAGER and supplemental requests to existing awards and require an email exchange with NSF to provide additional guidance as to the appropriateness of the proposed ideas. The next major step is to reassess and extend the capabilities toward designing EarthCube at a follow up event in May 2012. Meanwhile, the community was encouraged to continue the dialog, form groups, and refine as well as converge on ideas that were discussed during the Charrette.

Unidata will continue to follow the EarthCube effort closely, remain actively engaged in the related conversations, and, as appropriate, participate in shaping its design and development.


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