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The Importance of Advisory Bodies for Data Repositories: Learning from the NASA Experience

A Blog post by H. K. 'Rama' Ramapriyan (Science Systems and Applications, Inc. contractor for NASA Earth Science Data and Information System Project) and Alex de Sherbinin (WDS Scientific Committee member)

Any service organization exists to serve its customers. For a science data repository, the customers are users of its data, be they researchers or applied users in the scientific domain of that repository. For the data repository to serve the community best, it is essential that its managers understand the requirements of the users, respond to their changing needs, and evolve with technological changes as well. Many different mechanisms can be used to interact with users to continually maintain an understanding of their needs. NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project and its constituent Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) engage with User Working Groups (UWGs) to fulfil this function.The purpose of this Blog post is to discuss how UWGs have benefitted ESDIS and the DAACs, and to share lessons gleaned from 25 years of UWG experience to demonstrate how advisory bodies can improve data curation and management for the benefit of diverse user communities.



Figure 1. Map of the NASA DAACs.

NASA’s ESDIS Project, a WDS Network Member, is responsible for 12 DAACs, ten of which are Regular Members of ICSU-WDS. The DAACs serve user communities in various Earth Science disciplines and are geographically distributed across the United States as shown in Figure 1. The majority of the DAACs have UWGs consisting of experts who represent broad user communities in the respective Earth Science disciplines; specifically, the members of a UWG are regular users of the data served by that particular DAAC. These UWGs have typically existed since the mid-1990’s when the DAACs started their operations, although their memberships have changed during that time with regular rotation off of members and the recruitment of new members.

Each UWG has a charter that specifies its role in providing advice to its DAAC regarding the data and services offered. A summary of the common aspects of these charters is given below:

   Ensure science user involvement in the planning, development, and operations of the DAAC. 
   Define the DAAC's science goals.
   Provide recommendations on annual work plans and long-range planning.
   Represent the science user community in reviewing and guiding the DAAC activities.
   Review progress and performance of the DAAC relative to its missions. 
   Assess data-products and service quality by periodically reviewing applications of the data products made by the broad user community, and by sampling the confidence of the user community.
   Communicate users’ assessment of the DAAC performance to the DAAC and NASA.
   Advise the DAAC on the levels of service provided to the user community.
  Advise the DAAC on improvements to the user access, user interface, and relative priorities for DAAC-related functions.
  Recommend to the DAAC and NASA the addition of new data products and new services based upon documented NASA research needs.
  Provide advice on research and development in support of product prototyping and generation.

The UWGs generally hold annual in-person meetings attended by representatives of the responsible DAAC and the ESDIS Project. Staff members from some of the other DAACs also attend the meetings to benefit from the discussions that may apply to their own activities. The UWGs also hold teleconferences a few times each year. UWG meetings consist of presentations by the DAAC staff addressing data and services offered, on-going developments, responses to prior recommendations by the UWG, and the status of action items. Following the presentations, the UWG provides comments on implementation of past recommendations and advice regarding improvements for the future. The advice can either be DAAC-specific or apply to the broader cross-DAAC and ESDIS Project activities.

Some examples of advice provided by the UWGs in the past year are given below. 'Data search' is highlighted separately because this is the primary way the users find the data they need in repositories that are growing larger by the day, and so getting this right has important implications for the user community.

Data search

   Obtain user input on the design and usability of the Earthdata Search Client. Search relevance should be based on user experience in addition to the characteristics of the data. 
   Provide multiple avenues to access data holdings so that different types of users have tools appropriate for their needs. 
  Make data more readily searchable to a non-technical audience.  Develop a data search page intended for inexperienced and non-specialist users, containing popular data products and explanations of these products.  
    Make filtering and refining more obvious on webpages ('Amazon style').
    Add ability to save a search/search parameters.
    Enable users to rank search results in order of 'popularity' based on, for example, the number of previous downloads (search relevance by popularity).
   Enable users to rank search results by relevance in order to help them deal with the large number of search returns.
    Add the ability to filter by spatial and temporal resolution.

Other recommendations

    Create a simpler and more intuitive user interface that is optimized for touchscreen.
   Convene a focus group to determine how current users have performed analyses.  The focus group would also solicit guidance from data producers.
    Communicate with Principal Investigators (who provide datasets to the DAAC) at least twice a year to ensure data and metadata are current and accurate.
   Work within security requirements, but have a reliable, easy to access system that provides users with direct access to all the data holdings. Include an Application Programming Interface (API) and OPeNDAP with all data holdings available using these tools.
   Focus on increasing the capacity of the service so that the entire satellite data record can be accessed using a secure but easy to use interface, and which includes an API to script data access.
   Expand tools that facilitate coordinate system changes. (Context: The impact of the Digital Elevation Map choice and coordinate system on the ability for users to intercompare radar and optical imagery is currently poorly understood.)
  Explore ways to reorganize high value datasets into analytics-optimized storage,    while assessing the impact on the user community, and emphasizing variable-level analysis.
 Pursue/develop a plan to become an event-driven repository for major hydrometeorological events (e.g., Hurricane Harvey), providing bundled datasets that enable researchers to analyze specific events.
 Examine issues involved with multisensor analyses, including cross-DAAC coordination. (Context: User needs are becoming increasingly complex. Analyses often include multisensor data from a variety of sources.)
  Explore methods to improve and enhance data and computing, and tools using alternative access points; for example, Commercial cloud systems.
   Provide users more consistency DAAC-wide (e.g., comparable product descriptions, more unified terminology, and similar 'look and feel').

As these examples suggest, significant involvement by knowledgeable users in advising the DAACs has been extremely valuable for maintaining the high level of their performance. UWGs is one of several mechanisms that the NASA ESDIS Project and the DAACs use for receiving user inputs and feedback regarding their data and services. As enshrined in CoreTrustSeal Requirement VI, it is recommended that data repositories in all disciplines engage advisory groups in their respective areas to ensure responsiveness to their user communities.