Researchers Move to Harness Data Flood

Researchers Move to Harness Data Flood

By John Makulowich
Contributing Writer

The need to find better ways to share the enormous amounts of computer-generated data that could help solve the pressing global problems of today and tomorrow was spotlighted at a ground-breaking meeting last week that attracted more than 150 multidisciplinary researchers.

"To reach beyond today, to address the question, 'Will tomorrow's world be able to use today's information,' multidisciplinary groups cannot become islands," cautioned John R. Rumble Jr., chief of the Standard Reference Data Program at the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"We need to take advantage of now to think of the future," Rumble told participants at the Conference on Scientific and Technical Data Exchange and Integration. Sponsored by the National Research Council and the U.S. National Committee for CODATA (Committee on Data for Science and Technology), the Dec. 15-16 conference was held at the Natcher Conference Center on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

The conference, which was convened to explore ways to improve the sharing of scientific and technical data, covered a broad spectra of critical issues the world's scientists are likely to face in the 21st century. They included such hot-button topics as earth observations, biodiversity, bioinformatics, geographic information, industrial data and long-term archiving.

Rumble pointed out that amid all the ways that science and engineering have been revolutionized by computers, two aspects have not changed. "One is that data are generated and gathered by countless groups scattered geographically, temporally and over many disciplines. The other is that most applications require data from many different disciplines," Rumble said.

In a wide-ranging talk on the key issues of data exchange and integration, Rumble stressed the need to share data over long periods of time, throughout the world, across disciplines and of every variety. For instance, he foresees the need for multidisciplinary data that would allow scientists and researchers to perform a life cycle analysis that understands the challenges of our every industrial action, that is, which extends from idea inception through design and disposal all the way to recycling.

In another example, the re-engineering of our planet, he pointed to the data needed to control our physical world, to modify weather, to reclaim deserts.

However, few of the researchers involved in today's successful multidisciplinary efforts, such as the Human Genome Project, Global Climate Change, Federal Geographic Information Committee or ISO STEP (Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data), talk to one another, he said.

Rumble suggested several steps to improve the sharing of data. Among them were establishing forums for exchanging ideas and models of success, actively seeking synergism with other researchers and projects, integrating the value of information into the scientific and technical cultures, making federal funding agencies include data sharing in their cross-disciplinary motif and coordinating data sharing worldwide.

"The benefits," said Rumble, "would be the correct information at the correct time in the correct form and with the correct documentation forever."

Offering a paradigm for an interdisciplinary data network, another speaker, Rita R. Colwell, president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, showed how it is now possible with interdisciplinary teams to develop global monitoring of infectious disease. She also described how such teams can build predictive models for selected classes of infectious diseases, for example, those associated with vector, water and airborne infectious agents.

In the educational arena, Neal F. Lane, director of the National Science Foundation, highlighted a program sponsored by the
NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory called "Hands-on Universe."

In one project, students formed partnerships with scientists to study the migration patterns of the monarch butterfly. Part of the activity involved tagging the butterflies, tracking them, entering data and analyzing it. He pointed out that the students, in studying the migratory patterns, are learning what it means to share data as well as the process of scientific knowledge.

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