Standards Enable Open Geoscience Opportunities

By Lance McKee, posted on March 30th, 2011 in Earth Observation, GEOSS/ICEO News, OpEd, Technology

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Lance McKee
Senior Staff Writer
Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC)
+1 508-752-0108

This essay is the last of a three-part series about the role of the Internet and Internet-based geoprocessing standards in the “opening up” of the geosciences. The first1essay listed reasons for open publication of geoscience data. The second2 described institutional commitment to open data, obstacles to achieving the goal, and technical standards that make the goal practical, and indeed, inevitable. This final essay looks at opportunities for geoscience stakeholders as science evolves in response to the evolution of information technology.

What Earth science “wants”

In his recent book, What Technology Wants3, Kevin Kelly asserts that technology is part of the same mega-phenomenon of emergent order and increasing variety that gave rise to life. After reviewing technology’s history, costs and risks, he says, “Yes, technology is acquiring its own autonomy and will increasingly maximize its own agenda, but this agenda includes — as its foremost consequence — maximizing possibilities for us.”

The institutions and norms of science provide opportunities for scientists in a system of incentives that satisfy their scientific and personal desires well enough to keep science viable in the near term. The institutions and norms, however, are under pressure to evolve. Part of this pressure is the fact that young people entering the geoscience work force relate to information technology in new ways and this technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace.

Because our civilization’s survival depends on critical interdisciplinary geosciences such as ecology and climate science, it is geoscientists and their institutional partners who should be paying the most attention to open science.

Academia and the scientific community both shape and are shaped by media. One hundred years ago, geoscientists did field work, wrote papers on real paper, used mail, and had face-to-face meetings. Research progressed at a fairly methodical pace, often with little interaction between researchers in distance-separated geographic locations. Today, geoscientists use communication tools unthought of 50 years ago, enabling them to very rapidly network and interact with international colleagues and to access massive amounts of information, data and computing power. Such changes have accelerated progress in the Earth sciences and are beginning to open up new opportunities for institutions and individuals. Scientific publishers, for example, have opportunities to curate and publish data, and scientists potentially have more opportunities to be part of teams and communities that let each person make the most of their talents.

Today the Web, which at its root is a set of standards built on top of Internet standards, drives opportunity proliferation: Keyword searches, hyperlinking, tagging, geotagging, social networks, wikis, tweets, portals, web mapping, cloud computing, crowdsourcing, volunteered geographic information and smart phones all present opportunities for scientists. All depend on standards to provide universal access, data sharing and improved communication, and all present both risks and opportunities for institutions. Spawning unwieldy variety, emergent order shakes up old order.

For opportunities in the Earth sciences, what is particularly important are the geospatial standards that support access, sharing and improved communication of data and information referenced to Earth coordinate systems. Every Earth science community can benefit from a common “language” for expressing location, Earth feature properties and semantics, geoprocessing queries and responses, and sensor descriptions and data. New consensus-derived open standards developed by the global membership of the Open Geospatial Consortium4 (OGC) provide the foundation. OGC working groups are developing other standards that will address such things as communication of data provenance and quality, linking of information systems for natural and built environments, and location tagging of simple Short Message Service (SMS) messages.

Science wants to create and connect facts to create knowledge, and to connect bits of knowledge to create greater knowledge5. These functions depend on communication, so new, more powerful media based on new communication standards help science achieve its goals.

Internet disrupts, institutions resist

In science as in other domains, such as news reporting, the Internet is radically disruptive to old business models and incentive structures. The scientific paper selection and peer review process has become marginally faster with digital communications, but researchers effectively embargo their data both before and after publication. The publication of data is potentially easy and obviously useful (see the two previous articles in this series), so it ought to be the norm, but in practice new structures are needed to deal with rights, attribution, distribution, reputation, responsibilities and payment, and it takes time for such structures to form. To some, it seems that the integrity of science is at risk. To others, it seems that science is moving much too slowly into an era of greater integrity, effectiveness and growth.

With every disruptive technology, something is lost but something is gained (consider Socrates’ disdain for writing). Whether you share Kelly’s techno-optimism or not, the Internet challenge is unavoidable and we must look for answers to the question, “How can the institutions and practices of science be reshaped, not only to keep science viable but also to take science to a new level of integrity and effectiveness in an environment of new and ubiquitous information technologies?” Kelly, who carefully considers neo-Luddite fears and who speaks of our technologies as our children, would be the first to add, “How can we train the new information technologies to better serve science?”

Science co-evolves with society

Three “RSA Animate” animated talks prepared by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) relate to the subject of open science:

Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us6

The Empathic Civilization7

Changing Education Paradigms8

Here is my short summary of the talks: Sound behavioral science shows that current mainstream systems of education and worker motivation, which are rooted in outdated worldviews and economic relations, are surprisingly inefficient. What people actually respond to are increased opportunities for autonomy, mastery, purpose and selective collaboration. Most institutions discount these motivations, resulting in a deplorable global waste of human potential. On the positive side with respect to sustainability, each step in the progress of information technology has expanded the social sphere in which empathy motivates and binds us, and thus the hopeful prospect is that the Internet will ultimately extend our feelings of empathy to the biosphere.

With the prospect of active, science-based redesign of motivational systems and ongoing passive “massage” by new media (Marshall McLuhan’s pun9), we have some reason to hope that the institutions and practices of science will evolve to offer scientists more opportunities for autonomy, mastery, purpose and selective collaboration. In contrast to old media, which support hierarchical organization and conformity, new media encourage individuation and the emergence of new roles, so we can expect these opportunities to be matched to individuals’ unique motivational profiles. We can reasonably expect growth in creative uses of the Internet to accelerate science, science awareness, and science education.

The details of the new paradigm are, however, unclear. Peer review, for example, is a time-honored tradition in which the peers’ review of data has traditionally been deemed sufficient. How will peer review evolve to accommodate media that make possible much wider examination and reuse of data? The answer is not obvious. Recognizing and acting on new opportunities requires imagination and courage. While the new paradigm may be inevitable, it does not displace the old paradigm except as innovators give it shape.

New roles

The innovators shaping the new paradigm are creating new roles in science.

Part of both Kelly’s story and the RSA’s story is that discovery and invention are almost never the product of a lone genius; instead, each discovery and invention is an inevitable advance that emerges from an environment of ripening conditions. Kelly provides many examples of near-simultaneous completion of essentially identical studies and patents and compares this phenomenon to convergent evolution, the independent appearance in different life forms of, for example, similar wings or eyes. RSA describes the brain science involved in empathy and emulation, which are core elements of collaboration. The speaker in the “Changing Education Paradigms” animation states that most great learning happens in groups.

Thanks to the Web, the “ripening conditions” in any field of investigation evolve more rapidly and are felt more widely than before, and the Web reveals more opportunities for collaboration while also facilitating collaboration. The Web opens up new channels and removes obstacles to information sharing.

Science remains, of course, a highly competitive activity. New modes of partnering and sharing must evolve in an environment in which scientists continue to compete to build professional reputation by publishing findings in prestigious journals, ahead of others doing similar work. Competition will, in fact, probably intensify as innovators turn new media to advantage. This tension will shape the new paradigm. Just as businesses have been finding advantage in “coopetition”, scientists and teams of scientists will find new opportunities for advancement through collaboration. Similarly, life forms compete, but they also depend on each other. Just as maturing ecosystems are characterized by increasing numbers of interdependencies, people pursuing careers in science will create and discover new professional niches. To compete more effectively, scientists will, for example, increasingly seek help in writing grants and papers, developing data models and processing alogrithms, and setting up Web service based processing models. Social networks will help science professionals – not just scientists — join or form teams with unique constellations of creative and practical minds adapted to particular situations.

Cameron Neylon, an open science proponent, offered this sequence of research cycle diagrams in a presentation10 at a NESTA – Science in Society conference in 2009:Sequence of research cycle diagrams

To describe these figures, one might say that open science adds porosity to steps in the research cycle. The outflows of data and information from the steps in one research cycle become inflows to steps in others’ research cycles.

Much of the projected sharing in this more open research process will be, by the nature of the Web, passive and informal, like sharing in open source software development. Lakhani and Hipple found that open source software developers benefit from their free work mainly through the learning gained by browsing through the problems and solutions posed by other developers11.

In the same way that the Web gave rise to phenomena like Facebook and Twitter, such sharing will lead to new roles, new specialization, and new careers and businesses in science. Many Web innovations arise where there is widespread though little recognized need for a new communication channel. In open science, there are already business innovations seeking success in such market niches. For example:

• A small Australian start-up company called Kaggle is exploiting the concept of “crowdsourcing” in a novel way. Kaggle’s core idea is to facilitate the analysis of data by allowing outsiders to model it. To do that, the company organizes competitions in which anyone with a passion for data analysis can battle it out.

InnoCentive is a website “where organizations—corporations, large and small, not-for-profits and governments—turn when they have important problems that need solving.”13

Some new niches appear inside established institutions. The OGC has seen the rise of scientific domain working groups, such as the Hydrology Domain Working Group and the Meteorology and Oceans Domain Working Group, in which scientists and science application specialists focus on application schemas and profiles of OGC standards and best practices for using the standards. Such work elaborates on long-standing data modeling efforts in those disciplines. There are opportunities for such activities in all of the geosciences, because all require in-discipline and inter-discipline semantic interoperability.

While advances such as cloud computing reduce the need for scientists and research programs to spend time and money on systems and systems administration, the growing importance of standards increases the need for people who understand technical, semantic and institutional (cultural and political) interoperability in the context of specific research domains. Likewise, while the transition from file-based data processing to Web service-based data processing reduces the need for scientists to understand and manipulate data formats, the transition to Web-accessible open data and services increases the need for data curators and specialists in topics such as scientific workflow, model interoperability, metadata, data provenance, uncertainty and data rights management.

As geoscientists and GIS professors age they will find themselves increasingly surrounded by younger colleagues who have different titles and who are focused on preparing students to be specialist members of science teams.


In his presentation, Neylon offers these words of advice to those who seek to advance open science: “Make your work available, let others build on it, to increase your impact. Be clear about what you want and expect, and give that information in context. Build your network. It’s your most valuable asset.”

This advice has been applicable since the earliest days of the grand consensus process we call science. The difference is that now there are fewer constraints. New social media enrich our possibilities for networking and discovery. Talent will rise more quickly now, and talented people will more quickly find each other to create outstanding teams. Mentors, collaborators and assistants will be found more easily. Less time and talent will be wasted. Ideas will mature more quickly and will be shared globally.

Because all the geosciences focus on the same Earth, and because our civilization’s survival depends on critical interdisciplinary geosciences such as ecology and climate science, it is geoscientists and their institutional partners who should be paying the most attention to open science. One essential enabler of open science and associated new opportunities in science will be open standards that enable fluid publishing, discovery, assessment, access and use of data, sensors and processing services. The Board, members and staff of the OGC encourage members of the geoscience community to learn more about these standards.

3 “What Technology Wants” Kevin Kelly. Penguin Group. 2010. Page 352.
5 Kelly p 335
9 “The Medium is the Massage.”
10 Cameron Neylon presentation, NESTA – Science in Society conference in 2009, slides 30-32
11 Lakhani, K., & von Hippel, E. (2003). How Open Source Software Works: “Free” User-to-User Assistance. Research Policy, 32, 923-943.
12 Science 11 February 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6018 pp. 698-699, “May the Best Analyst Win,” by Jennifer Carpenter.

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