EarthCube: Helping Scientists Share What They Know

Eva Zanzerkia has an embarrassing confession: Back while doing her dissertation in seismology, she had gathered data pinpointing the location of foreshocks to 23 earthquakes. “I didn’t publish a paper on it, so it kind of sat on my computer,” she says. Then her computer crashed, wiping her hard drive. Zanzerkia was upset, but chalked it up as no big loss, doubting her results would interest others. Then, nine years after completing her dissertation, she got a call: Hey, do you still have that data you collected on those 23 earthquakes? the caller asked. We’d love to use it in a new study.

“I had to tell them, ‘Well, the only place where that was stored is now dead,‘” says Zanzerkia. “The research was gone, and couldn’t be used by someone else.”

What she learned: Scientists don’t always share well with others. It’s not that they don’t want to pool resources, it’s just that there’s no easy way to do it. Many researchers, like Zanzerkia, stash their records on personal computers. Or, if it gets published, it’s not easily accessed by other researchers — who, on average, spend 80 percent of their time finding the information they need and only 20 percent doing analysis. The result? Scientific breakthroughs happen at a snail’s pace; some don’t happen at all.

Image of the EarthCube logo.

The EarthCube logo.

EarthCube aims to fix that. This effort, launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in June 2011, aims to make it easier for scientists to share what they’ve learned. And not just seismologist to seismologist, but across disciplines in the hopes that it will help scientists step back and ponder the big picture: how Earth works as a whole.

Because after all, explains geoscientist Clifford Jacobs, one of EarthCube’s founding members with Zanzerkia: “No matter how humans divide the pie — oceanographer, astro-scientist, geologist, or a sub-geologist in some special discipline — the Earth has quite a chuckle over that, because it operates as one integrated system.” It’s as if each scientist holds a piece of the puzzle, but doesn’t know how to put them together. Jacobs says the name came from a meeting where one member said, “This concept is really beyond squared. It’s cubed.” From there, EarthCube stuck.

EarthCube kicked off with a series of charrettes inviting scientists to convene, both online and in Washington, D.C., to discuss the biggest challenges they faced conducting research. Then they were asked to do something highly unusual: brainstorm solutions together — a marked departure from their usual practice of stealing off to mastermind their plans in secret. “People were very resistant in the beginning,” recalls Zanzerkia. “They’re so used to the NSF’s old funding model where you compete against other people. You will always need that process, but at some point, scientists also need to think beyond their own needs.”

EarthCube’s collaborative approach, both technologically and culturally, is modeled after the Internet — a shining example of how various experts came together to establish standards that streamlined the information gathering process. “If you want to know who was released from the California prison last month or who are the leaders of the European Union, you can Google it and find out,” says Jacobs. “You have no idea where that information resides; the browser interface protects you from all that underlying craziness. If you looked under the hood, you’d get sick. The Internet wouldn’t work unless there was some agreement about how things work under the hood.”

One scientist who attended the first charrette, Tim Ahern from the Seattle, Washington-based Incorporated Research Institute of Seismology, ended up collaborating with nine other organizations whose specialties ranged from the solid Earth sciences to atmospherics to oceanography. Each had gathered different data on the same patches of land: elevation, soil composition, barometric pressure, geologic age, seismic activity, and so forth. Wouldn’t it be great, they mused, if they combined all this information in one place?

A word cloud of the first charrette in November 2011. Image Credit: EarthCube.

A word cloud of the first charrette in November 2011. Image Credit: EarthCube.

Thus was born the Service Based Integration Platform for EarthCube (SBIP-E), a technology that crawls databases and culls statistics about specific areas over specific periods of time. This merging of data, Ahern says, could lead to some surprising scientific discoveries. Ice quakes, for instance, are a direct result of rising worldwide temperatures, giving scientists a new window into global climate change. “Most wouldn’t think seismology has a strong role in climate change, but it does,” Ahern says.

So far, 12 projects born from EarthCube’s charrettes have received NSF funding. One aims to shed light on “dark data” — information that’s not easily accessed because it’s unpublished or not in a searchable digital format. Another, called “data brokering,” syncs up previously incompatible databases of information. This could solve a variety of problems, says Francoise Pearlman, co-owner of Port Angeles, Washington-based J&F Enterprise, who is a member of the broker project. “One example is the Iceland volcanic eruptions that released a cloud of ash, disturbing transportation over Europe,” she points out. Had volcanologists and atmospheric scientists shared what they knew, it could have helped millions of stranded travelers.

EarthCube is still a work in progress, and remains open to new ideas. As for what the future holds, Ahern points to just how much research practices have changed from the past. “Thirty years ago, seismologists spent months traveling to various centers across the U.S. to get their data,” he says. “Today, they get that same data in an hour or two.”

Within the next 30 years, Ahern and others hope EarthCube will help scientists make similar strides by cross-pollinating data that will become more than the sum of its parts. Zanzerkia, for one, hopes to see a day when scientists can gather statistics on any plot of land in real time, on the field, rather than trekking back to their desks. If her broken-down computer has taught her anything, it’s this: “You never know when someone else will want to use your data and do something with it.”

Judy Dutton is the author of “Science Fair Season,” a nonfiction book about all the amazing projects coming out of science fairs today (including a nuclear reactor in a 14-year-old’s garage). She writes for Wired, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, and other publications and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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