The Unidata Program receives the majority of its funding from the National Science Foundation. Every five years, the program submits a new proposal to the NSF, outlining past accomplishments and describing plans for future activities.
As Unidata entered the final year of the most recent NSF proposal period, which ended on March 31, 2019, Program Center staff and members of Unidata's governing committees engaged in countless conversations about the future direction of the program. The impact of existing programs, requests from community members for new or augmented services, and prognostications about the future needs of the geoscience educators and researchers all figured into the discussions. The resulting proposal, titled Unidata: Next-generation Data Services and Workflows to Advance Geoscience Research and Education, was submitted to the NSF early October 2018.
While official notification was delayed due to the lingering effects of the government shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019, we are pleased to inform our community that the proposal was reviewed favorably and funding for Unidata's continued operation has been awarded by the NSF. Award number 1901712 had an official start date of May 1, 2019, and runs through April of 2024 (subject to the availability of funding).
While much of the work proposed involves the continuation and extension of existing programs, projects, and services, the proposal does refine the focus of program activities using the concept of Science as a Service. From the proposal:
Our Science as a Service vision draws together Unidata's ongoing work to provide geoscience data and software for analysis and visualization with access to workflows designed to take advantage of cloud computing resources. The approach we envision encompasses a wide range of scenarios — from essentially turn-key online resources for classroom use, relying on data and software provided directly by the Unidata Science Gateway in NSF's Jetstream cloud — to highly customizable, scalable, portable, and reproducible workflows for researchers and teams, drawing together data and software from disparate sources and melding them into scientific artifacts that can be efficiently shared with others and archived for the benefit of future investigators. We see this vision as a natural evolution of our work in the previous five-year period of performance, which aimed at making cloud-based tools and resources more available to the Unidata community.
Two ideas that go into the Science as a Service concept are particularly compelling. One is the opportunity this paradigm affords to bring together disparate existing and emerging data sources so that they can be studied in conjunction with one another easily and without the need to move data around the network. We see data-proximate analysis as a key concept for the usability of these (potentially very large) datasets. Second, we consider the idea of a digital “science workbench” or “makerspace” to be key to democratizing data access, science education, and research. The online environment we envision will provide users with access to data and common tools (computing resources and software) as a starting point, but also allow them to bring their own data and tools as well. In an environment where use of common tools and data is the norm, participants will be encouraged to share techniques, ideas, and results with each other directly.
The beginnings of Unidata's work in this area are visible in the nascent Unidata Science Gateway project, with Unidata's JupyterHub as a prime example of our early efforts. You can read the full text of the proposal here, or the one-page project summary here.
The UPC staff is gratified to receive the continuing support of the National Science Foundation and the broad Unidata community. In the coming months, we hope to begin laying out a more concrete picture of how we think the Unidata community can benefit from the Science Gateway and other modern geoscience workflows. We'll be asking for your ideas and feedback, so stay tuned.