EarthCube: Developing a Framework to Create and Manage Knowledge in the Geosciences

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Image of EarthCube logo.
Image of the EarthCube logo.

The EarthCube logo.

To understand and predict the Earth system from the center of the sun to the center of the Earth is a bold call to action by the Advisory Committee for Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Similar calls can be found through a search of the global scientific literature, e.g. see the National Academy’s Division on Earth and Life Studies. The implications of and for humanity is a dominate theme in all of these recent reports. It is important to note that almost all of these reports recognize the importance of the use of cyberinfrastructure (CI) to derive knowledge from a cornucopia of information and data about our planet, the sun, and near-space environment (the portion of space between the sun and the Earth).
Propelled by an industry-driven technology revolution over the last decade, geoscientists working with informaticists have created an ever-increasing array of cyberinfrastructure solutions that serve research and educational endeavors. There are a number of communities within the geosciences that have created, or are in the process of creating, highly functional and robust CI systems to increase the productivity and capability of research communities, e.g. UNIDATA (meteorology), IRIS (seismology), and OOI (oceanography).
Although outputs from these systems are of great value to the communities they serve, the outcome with respect to understanding and predicting the Earth as a single complex system remains to be fully realized. Insufficient community dialog and sharing of ideas, practices, data, etc., across disciplines within geosciences has created many cyber-technology enabled solutions to solve similar problems.
Without an overall guiding framework to promote convergence, the diversity of approaches becomes a barrier to the holistic study of the Earth system. Although there is evidence of a community movement toward increased compatibility through the use of common standards and software, this process, if left un-stimulated, would be too slow to allow the geosciences community to address the most pressing challenges outlined in various reports, e.g. the crossroad challenges articulated in the GEO Vision (download pdf report).
EarthCube is NSF’s effort to:

1) Accelerate the convergence process;
2) Frame a system that is scaleable as ever more complexity is investigated; and,
3) Transform to take advantage of emerging technologies.

The NSF is facilitating a community dialog with a goal of transforming the conduct of research in geosciences by supporting the development of a community-guided CI to integrate data and information for knowledge management across the geosciences.
The purpose of the project is to significantly increase the productivity and capability of researchers and educators by integrating all geosciences data, information, knowledge and practices in an open, transparent and inclusive manner. No integrated framework currently exists that is sufficiently functional and robust to allow a holistic view of the Earth system.
This is not for lack of investment in CI by NSF, other agencies, or international partners. Rather it is an outcome resulting from a long history of making needed tactical investments in sub-disciplines of geosciences. Most of these investments effectively serve the communities that have come to depend upon them. Through these investments and concurrent investments in people, other tools, and ideas, the community helped establish a strong CI foundation and user-savvy CI culture. However, recent surveys and community dialog reveal a frustration with CI-created incompatibilities across the geosciences and a readiness to strategically address the incompatibilities.
The challenge faced by funding agencies lies in transforming substantial previous CI investments in collecting, curating, and disseminating geosciences data so that these investments can become more “interworkable” and shared more uniformly with a myriad of end users. The good news is that technologies emerging from industry will create an opportunity to greatly facilitate the convergence process within the geosciences, because all the technologies used today by the sub-disciplines of geosciences will be completely refreshed over the next decade. The framework developed under the auspices of EarthCube will guide the refreshment choices toward establishing an interworkable structure to study the Earth system.
Early efforts
The Geosciences Directorate (GEO) and the Office of Cyberinfrastructure (OCI) established a partnership to address the multifaceted challenges of modern, data-intensive science and education. The EarthCube program is one manifestations of the NSF-wide program titled “Cyberinfrastructure for the 21st Century.”
A “Dear Colleague Letter” initiated EarthCube in June 2011, and was followed by several WebEx-enabled dialogs with the community. These and other events set the stage for a charrette held Nov. 1-4, 2011. The charrette provided the opportunity for the community to come together (face-to-face and virtually) to clarify the breadth and scope of EarthCube, identify potential new science that could be accomplished within a future framework, and develop a rough order to the set of capabilities that would be needed to realize the EarthCube vision. Information on the charrette and its outcomes is available at the EarthCube website.
A second “Dear Colleague Letter” was released on Dec. 16, 2011, and provided the guidance for proposals to NSF that would explore transformational ideas to enable EarthCube. On the planning horizon is another community event planned for the late spring or early summer of 2012. NSF will continue to facilitate a broad-based community dialogue through a variety of modern and traditional methods to further develop a strategic framework for EarthCube and encourage convergence of collaborations within the geosciences and beyond.
Clifford Jacobs is a senior advisor for Geosciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation. His career spans the private sector and government service and has engaged him in basic and applied research, teaching, and scientific program management. For more than 25 years, he served as the program officer for the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where he oversaw research activities and the provision of facilities to the university community, including a broad range of cyberinfrastructure activities.