American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2012

San Francisco, USA, 9-13 December 2012.

Event website.

By Kathryn Rose, Agent and Postdoctoral researcher, British Antarctic Survey.

Highlights

  1. Numerous presentations on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) demonstrated a drive to promote software sharing within the Earth Sciences community.
  2. The dominant use for FOSS is both to analyse and model data sets, but also to take those results and link them to accessible (often web based) data visualisation techniques. Does the SSI have any experience in linking data visualisation tools to the web?
  3. I discovered a whole range of FOSS websites, tools and mailing lists specifically for Earth Science data, which I had previously been unaware of. I was able to inform several presenters about the Software Sustainability Institute and this could be a good meeting to attend to promote the work of the SSI further.
  4. There was discussion on how academics can gain recognition for software development so that, where applicable, it can become a more integrated part of their role.

Conference report

The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting is a renowned annual event that brings together Earth Systems Scientists from across the globe to discuss the latest advances in their research. The meeting has a broad remit which allows it to support a diversity of research (e.g. hydrology, geology, oceans, atmosphere, cryosphere) and encourages academics at all stages of their careers (e.g. Ph.D. students to established Professors) to attend. It was my first time attending the meeting and I found that there were two main themes, promoting both recent developments in Earth Sciences, and the latest in technology. ‘Technology’ included a broad range of computing and engineering subject matter applicable to Earth Systems Science, from new equipment (such as remotely operated vehicles on Mars and autonomous instrumentation) to software development (e.g. toolboxes for modelling data sets), and data centres designed for sharing and storing data online. As a result, a number of software and engineering research based companies and institutes were present at the meeting looking for ways in which they could collaborate with and aid scientists. Seeking out such collaborations could result in funding opportunities, although I was not aware of any schemes that were specifically advertised. This conference could be a

I found this conference presented a remarkable learning experience for me. Combining both technology and research in one meeting meant that I was exposed to a much greater breadth of computing and engineering solutions relevant to my research field. I did not realise how many software applications there are available on the internet that are seeking greater exposure and use in the science community. On speaking to some of the software developers there was a strong desire to encourage researchers to both take up Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) solutions, but also to change, comment, and improve that software. Many were seeking to encourage academics to learn how to use and develop the software according to their own needs. FOSS was seen as an easy and accessible way through which this could be achieved, particularly for those not comfortable working in a UNIX operating system.

Linked to this, I noted numerous projects promoting software ‘toolboxes’ that could be used by different Earth Systems Science disciplines to analyse and visualise their data. It seems there is a move towards providing tools that the community can use and develop themselves and thereby, evolve existing software packages. The majority favour an open source framework and a modular system that will increase the life span of a project and make it more adaptable. Linked to this, the community is considering developing systems that are equally suitable for education, training and teaching students. It is hoped that this will make software development techniques and code more accessible to the broader scientific community, but as more people use FOSS there will be a greater need for websites to deal with FOSS management and code issues.

I also joined a controversial debate on the issues around successfully linking academics and software developers. There was a feel that, as an academic, if you’re trying to develop software this can be quite a lengthy learning and/or development process. This is can be, or is considered to be, quite a drain on your time, particularly when academics are judged on publication outputs. Conversely, as a computer scientist you create a project when developing software and these projects, rather than publications, measure your ‘productivity’. As Earth Scientists are not rewarded externally for software, they generally see it as a tool but don’t attach much credit to it. Therefore, there is a need to find a way for FOSS projects to find recognition in the form of publications – the required currency for academics. This raised questions on whether you can publish on software in the Earth Sciences community and if we need to launch a new journal on FOSS for Earth Scientists in order to formalise the publication process around such projects and achieve recognition and dissemination of such work? Working to launch such a journal could be an important avenue to ensure the future and uptake of FOSS in Earth Systems Science.