New Tool to Help Monitor the Environment

Kathy Kowalenko wrote this piece for the institute. It is reprinted here with permission.

Photo showing a bunch of hands holding up the earth. Photo: Gandee Vasan/Getty Images

Photo: Gandee Vasan/Getty Images

Too much data coming from too many sources that use too many different computer systems can be downright confusing. That’s happening with the numerous programs observing events that affect the Earth’s health. The complex programs—developed by governments and organizations involved in environmental research—capture all sorts of data along with the geographic coordinates of the places where each measurement is made. These coordinates are then used to map the data. This may sound simple enough, but it’s not.

The reason is that not everyone uses the same coordinate system, and maps cannot simultaneously display data with mixed coordinates. But this is just one of the problems faced by research groups, which are usually happy to share the information they collect to advance the development of knowledge. Each group may also use its own native language, scientific terms, and technical protocols, as well as those geographic coordinates. The result: It may take weeks to sift through conflicting information to build a model that simulates a drought, for example.

The Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) is being developed to overcome such incompatibilities. This Earth-monitoring network brings together data gathered by thousands of sensors, buoys, weather stations, and satellites on conditions across the land, water, and atmosphere. GEOSS is supported by all the major industrialized nations and many scientific organizations, including IEEE through its Committee on Earth Observation.

The European Commission is one of the leading players in the development of GEOSS and supports it through several research projects. One such project is EuroGEOSS, which allows scientists and funding agencies to access information from a variety of shared infrastructures without having to install special software or learn new applications—and to do it via the Web.

“The EuroGEOSS program will change the paradigm of how information is treated and shared,” says IEEE Fellow Jay Pearlman, former chair of the IEEE Committee on Earth Observation. “What used to take weeks to model will now be done in hours using tools and data accessed through the Web. For example, if you are part of a group working in Europe and must travel to Africa, you don’t have to bring all your files with you. You simply go to the Web in Africa and carry out the same processes as you would in Europe.”

Organizations making use of EuroGEOSS developments include the Global Biodiversity Information Facility Secretariat, NASA, and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

DATA BROKERS

EuroGEOSS builds on the achievements of the Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE), a European directive providing the legal framework, technical guidelines, and specifications for shared data infrastructures that deal with environmental issues. The legislation requires all 27 nations of the European Union to “ensure that the spatial data infrastructures of the member states are compatible and usable in a community and transboundary context.”

Established in 2009, EuroGEOSS will lift INSPIRE to the next level of data sharing, according to Max Craglia, technical coordinator of EuroGEOSS and a senior scientist in the unit of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre that is responsible for INSPIRE’s technical development.

Satellite photo of lakes in the Rift Valley of Central Africa.

With EuroGEOSS, scientists can access information from anywhere via the Internet to model, for example, changing environmental conditions such as variations in the water color of these lakes in the Rift Valley of Central Africa. Photo: NASA

To share the information across disciplines, software languages, and infrastructures, EuroGEOSS uses a so-called brokering approach. The broker is a software component that mediates between different systems and makes it possible for them to work together without either having to adopt the standards or specifications of the other, Craglia explains. It works like computer-based language translators but has much broader capabilities, Pearlman adds.

The brokering approach is composed of five parts. The discovery broker searches across multiple shared infrastructures based on key words, time, and geography. The semantic broker translates nomenclature based on concepts that are related to each other but may come from different science or engineering disciplines, for example. The Web 2.0 broker searches across social networks for resources.

The access broker allows the user to retrieve information, and it can convert data sets so the results have the same coordinate reference systems, which are used to locate geographic entities and time-reference information. And the publishing broker publishes and documents new data sets that might be products or analyses.

“EuroGEOSS recognized that the diversity of scientific and technology practices across the research communities made it impossible to impose a single solution for interoperability,” Craglia says. “With our brokering approach, users and data providers are not asked to implement any specific interoperability technology but to continue using their own tools and publish their results according to their own standards.

“We are trying to create an environment in which scientists in different specialties can collaborate with a shared perspective to address different chunks of the same environmental problem,” he continues. “By making the process more open and available on the Web, potentially millions of people can use it and understand the science better.”

Says Pearlman, “EuroGEOSS is not seen as a global repository since it does not store data. Its benefits are in its ability to access global, national, and even local data repositories from many disciplines and bring them together in a coherent way for government, professional, and citizen users. The repositories themselves indicate the coordinates they use. With the broker taking on the burden of translating the data, we are not asking anyone to do extra work.”

An international collaboration created the EuroGEOSS brokers. More than 20 partners helped develop them, including Italy’s National Research Council, the European Union’s Joint Research Centre, France’s Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières, the Universitat Jaume I in Spain, and the University of Nottingham, England.

The Italian National Research Council, which is the main partner behind the development of the broker, has committed resources to sustain its development until 2015. The institutional commitment makes it possible to include the brokering framework in the GEOSS common infrastructure.

OTHER AREAS

EuroGEOSS has zeroed in on linking forestry, drought, and biodiversity systems. “By focusing on specific areas, EuroGEOSS can create a template with linkages across multiple systems and enable them to work together as one—not only in accessing data but also in providing models, forecasts, and possible scenarios,” Craglia says. “And once these templates are complete, it will be possible to apply their models to other areas.” This is already happening, for example, in the areas of weather, ocean ecosystems, and water runoff in the GEOWOW project that was launched last September for a three-year period.

“One of the challenges facing humanity in the 21st century,” Pearlman says, “is the ability to understand complex relationships between environment and society and to communicate these complexities to the public and decision makers, who will be able to make better decisions because information will be more comprehensive and accurate.”

This article originally appeared in the March 5, 2012 issue of the institute.