RSE conference shines new light on ocean research software

Posted by g.law on 18 February 2020 - 10:31am
ocean waves
Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

Attending the Research Software Engineers conference in Birmingham last September was an eye opening experience for a team of software engineers from the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

“We weren’t even familiar with the term Research Software Engineer until last year,” says senior software engineer Alvaro Lorenzo-Lopez. “Now, we’re starting to recognise ourselves as RSEs.”

Lorenzo-Lopez is head of a software team within the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) development team at NOC, managing a fleet of tools designed to help the centre’s scientists. This includes two research vessels, the RSS Discovery and RSS James Cook, plus equipment ranging from sensors to underwater gliders, robot submarines, surface-operating robots and remotely operated platforms.

The centre’s research ranges from physical oceanography to biology and polar studies, covering “anything ocean related”, says Lorenzo-Lopez. Any researcher with a UKRI grant can request the use of the centre’s tools, and the MARS team will work with them to create the software they need to do their research.

“The equipment is a mix of commercial and in-house developed, and we host the biggest fleet in Europe. Researchers can ask for them to be deployed anywhere in the world. And my group has two tasks: to maintain and deploy these autonomous assets, and to develop the high-level control systems that allow us to pilot them,” Lorenzo-Lopez says.

“We’re developing solutions for the scientific community here and that community has very particular problems and time scales. We build operational systems but they need to be very flexible because scientists are doing things that no one else is doing. So how do you create robust software that is also changing very rapidly?”

When the team attended the RSE conference, they saw their work in a new light.

“We were very impressed. It makes a lot of sense. I’m a computer scientist, a software engineer, but I’ve been working in science for more than ten years and to find other people doing the same thing … I always knew there were other people doing similar work, but to have something more formal makes sense,” he says.

Understanding more about the RSE role has given Lorenzo-Lopez and his team “confidence that other people understand our problems”, he says.

The career path for these engineers has also been an issue in the past, he says.

“Most of my friends doing software work in industry have a clear path to follow in their career and evolve. Here it’s not that clear. Our career development is supposedly the same as or scientists and traditional engineers, says Lorenzo-Lopez.

Getting involved in the RSE community has given fresh view on how issues like this could be tackled, he says.

“My team is a very young team and so we’ve been developing everything from scratch. So now we’re trying to learn more from others, and talking to other RSEs."

Lorenzo-Lopez is now trying to spread word around NOC about the RSE term and who it can describe.

“I think my team is the first that’s getting into it. This team is made up of people who are software engineers first, but are working in science. Across the organisation there are also scientists who are writing software. So we’re very keen to go and talk to other departments and to find people who are doing these activities but who don’t know what an RSE is.

“The conference in Birmingham was great, because we could see that there are lots of people who fit the RSE profile, and don’t know they are RSEs,” he says.

Lorenzo-Lopez is also keen to broaden the software skills of other scientists in the centre.

“We are developing infrastructure and a lot of APIs and documentation, so that we can enable people to build their own algorithms to control our vehicles. We need to go out to the community and explain to them how we can support them to do better science with what we have developed,” he says.

The RSE journey at NOC has just begun, Lorenzo-Lopez says, “but I think we will make a change. I think it has changed our perception of what is out there and what we do. We didn’t perceive ourselves as RSEs before but I think the team is quite into the idea now. And we need to have more contact with scientists and other RSEs that are different to us.

“It hasn’t made a big difference to how we work yet – but we hope it will have an impact going forward.”


Want to discuss this post with us? Send us an email or contact us on Twitter @SoftwareSaved.