Putting Earth Observation Data to Work: The EuroGEOSS Broker (Max Craglia interview)
The first step in making sense of the processes and events that impact the Earth is to observe and analyze them. The next step is to share those observations and analyses with your peers in the context of a shared infrastructure. Today, however, there are dozens of such shared infrastructures, each with its own set of policies, terms and protocols. The content is written in dozens of languages, and may cover the same ground multiple times. As Dr. Massimo (Max) Craglia, technical coordinator of the EuroGEOSS project, explains:
“Over the last 15 years, there have been a lot of developments worldwide to develop infrastructures to share spatial and environmental data. These have been mainly government led, and focused on research and policy. The problem we faced in Europe was that these different infrastructures did not use the same technical protocols, and therefore could not communicate across borders. Moreover, their content was in different languages (23 in the European Union alone), and major semantic differences existed across disciplines.”
One answer to this complex situation is the creation of The Infrastructure for Spatial Information in Europe (INSPIRE). INSPIRE is a European directive, adopted in 2007, and in the process of being implemented. The INSPIRE legislation obliges all nations in the European Union to “ensure that the spatial data infrastructures of the Member States are compatible and usable in a community and transboundary context.”
INSPIRE provides a series of technical guidelines and specifications to ensure that all European spatial data infrastructures work together. The Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission (EC) is the Technical Coordinator of this activity, but other directorates also are involved. The European Directorate-General for the Environment is leading the policy aspects, since INSPIRE addresses mainly environmental issues, while Eurostat will run the operational components. According to the INSPIRE website, the key principles of INSPIRE are that:
• Data should be collected only once and kept where it can be maintained most effectively;
• It should be possible to combine seamless spatial information from different sources across Europe and share it with many users and applications;
• It should be possible for information collected at one level/scale to be shared with all levels/scales; detailed for thorough investigations, general for strategic purposes;
• Geographic information needed for good governance at all levels should be readily and transparently available;
• It should be easy to find what geographic information is available, how it can be used to meet a particular need, and under which conditions it can be acquired and used.
INSPIRE is an important European contribution to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. Other contributions from Europe include the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security initiative, and dedicated research projects. This is where EuroGEOSS comes in.
EuroGEOSS, funded by the European Union Framework Programme for Research & Development, is a three-year project intended to advance the state of the art of infrastructures like INSPIRE.
Says Dr. Craglia: “EuroGEOSS involves access to data, but it also says ‘yes, data is important – but more important is what you do with the data afterwards.’ If you are trying to address complex issues like climate change or impact of society on the environment and vice versa, you must analyze, build models, make forecasts.
“In this project, we are trying to move beyond access to data, and make sure specialists describe what they do with the data to address different questions. All the knowledge experts have in their heads through their training is brought out into the open, formalized, and published so that the models that people would ordinarily create in their offices are also available to the wider scientific community. We are trying to create an environment in which scientists in different specialties can collaborate with a shared perspective to address different chunks of a problem.”
Craglia notes that collaboration is difficult, especially when it crosses both disciplines and language barriers. Thus, the challenge of EuroGEOSS is to develop tools to bridge traditional chasms between and among scientific communities.
The EC and JRC already have information systems that relate to drought, forestry and biodiversity, and so those three themes were selected as a focus for EuroGEOSS in its first three years.
Specifically, for example, “Biodiversity” addresses national parks in Africa because the EU is a major donor of aid in Africa, so there’s a policy demand to develop priorities for where to put the money.
Drought and Forest have a more European focus but they also are contributing to global initiatives. By focusing on specific areas of interest, EuroGEOSS can create a template that includes linkages across multiple systems so they can work together as one; not only accessing data but also providing models, forecasts, and possible scenarios. Once the templates are complete, it will become possible to expand the model to other thematic areas.
How is it possible to share information across disciplines, languages and infrastructure? The answer, now actively in use through EuroGEOSS, is a “brokering framework.” According to the EuroGEOSS website, “The EuroGEOSS Broker is able to interface with the web services in each of the three thematic areas, regardless of the different standards they use. In practical terms, the broker takes a request from a user as an entry, translates and dispatches it between the referenced services. In return, it merges and displays the results from the services.”
Says Dr. Craglia, “To develop the broker, you need to go out into different scientific communities and find out what is important to them, and how they address a problem. To do that, you need to sit, for example, with someone responsible for creating a map of forested areas in Europe and ask, “how do you do it?”
The likely response will be, Craglia says, “I create a map of an area that’s forested.” But then the question must be asked, “What do you mean by forest?” Unfortunately, the answer to that question is as varied as the people involved.
For example, “A forest can have no trees at all in England, as the term was used for the hunting reserves of kings. So there are English ’forests‘ with no trees. You can find definitions of forest that run for hundreds of pages. In some of the work we do, we adopt for example the definition of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), because you can’t cater for all definitions of forest — but you must make explicit which one you’re adopting for a particular application, what you do to reach an answer to a particular question. The key is that you are comparing apples to apples.”
Next, “You go through the process that each specialist goes through; you describe the process in language or in a more formal way. There are formal languages (such as the Business Processes Modeling Notation or BPMN) that allow- formal description of the process. Then you refine the process further into the work flow. Eventually, you can make the workflow executable by computers and thus create a service that’s published on the web.”
The EuroGEOSS Broker is a breakthrough in multi-disciplinary, international collaboration. It’s also, says Craglia, a “huge paradigm shift. If you’re a specialist you do all your work on the computer on your own; if you make the process more open and explicit, and run it on the web, potentially millions of people can use it and understand the science better.” The program is already available on the web, and is in use by investigators in specific fields of environmental research.
While the process of developing the Broker is time-consuming and complex, says Craglia, it’s working. “One proof of the pudding is that we are halfway through the project and the work we’ve developed has been recognized as so useful that we’re asked to contribute to a demonstration for the next GEOSS plenary.
“The architecture we’ve put in place is essentially based on acknowledging the differences in different disciplines. Through the work we’ve done we’ve realized that disciplines have different professional languages, styles, standards, and ways of collecting and sharing information. There are good reasons for the differences, so if you want to bring them together you can’t force them into a single template. You can’t be a dictator. People will say ‘no thanks.’ Instead, you build bridges. You learn to listen and understand what people do. You build technology that provides connections among different standards and information systems so they can communicate.”
According to the EuroGEOSS site, “The development for interoperability in EuroGEOSS has three phases: Interoperability within domains – across regional and national data bases; interoperability between the three focus domains of the project; and broad interoperability across the nine societal benefit areas of GEOSS. The EuroGEOSS project ends in April 2012, but another project will continue its work addressing the areas of Weather, Oceans, and Water (GEOWOW).