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UM Gets $8M Grant To Foster Data Sharing In Sustainability

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ANN ARBOR — The School of Information at the University of Michigan is heading a cooperative effort by four major universities to create better methods for data-sharing among scientists and researchers in the new and growing field of sustainability.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a two-year, $2 million grant to the School of Information, with $8 million anticipated over the course of the project. Sustainable Environment-Actionable Data (SEAD) will address important issues of sustainability, focusing on the interactions between nature and human activities. Understanding fundamental principles for sustainable societies requires access to large amounts of data on natural phenomena, human behavior, and economics, according to Margaret Hedstrom, SI professor and principal investigator for the project.

“To date these data have been difficult to obtain and use because disciplines across the natural and social sciences collect, describe, and store their data in different ways,” Hedstrom said. “The data could have significant value if it were possible to connect the data collectors with potential users, and if it were easy for individuals to search for, aggregate, and maintain valuable data for the long term.”

This grant will enable the School of Information and its partners at Indiana University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to develop a system whereby sustainability scientists can manage and share their data. SEAD will provide tools for active curation of data and engage researchers using social networking.

“We will demonstrate that it is possible to take a variety of technologies and develop a system that helps researchers manage their data and motivates them to share it with others. SEAD will employ social networking technologies similar to those used on popular sites such as YouTube and Flickr to facilitate connections between scientists,” Hedstrom said.

In the first two years of this project, the team will work closely with scientists in sustainable land use, water quality, urban planning, and agriculture in the upper Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin.

“For years, sustainability science researchers have lacked a way to manage heterogeneous data over the long-term,” said Praveen Kumar, co-PI and Lovell Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois. “Moreover, the value of research that results from combining observations and measurements from multiple datasets to create a new dataset is often lost, as there is no easy way to share this data. SEAD will help us insure these novel data sets are available for reuse. This can have far-reaching benefits, aiding scientists and policy makers in the areas of natural resource management, agriculture, energy, economic development, and related areas to make better decisions.”

According to Beth Plale, co-PI and director of the Data to Insight Center at Indiana University, “Communities carrying out research that contributes to a sustainable planet recognize that further advances of large-scale research questions will require simultaneous advances in data cyberinfrastructure. Our project brings the research libraries to the table as what we consider to be a key piece of the solution of long term preservation of this important asset.”

Director of the supercomputing center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, co-PI Jim Myers is building the software infrastructure to support a network of repositories that will function on multiple levels.

“One of the aspects of SEAD I find most exciting is that we’ll be developing and delivering infrastructure that really couples active research and long-term preservation of important reference data to a degree that hasn’t been done before,” Myers said. “I believe that coupling will prove to be tremendously powerful and will ultimately have a dramatic impact on the pace of academic and industrial research and on the scope and scale of research projects that can be tackled.”

“A central component of the project is its application to education, training, and outreach,” said Ann Zimmerman, co-PI and research assistant professor at the School of Information. “The post-doctoral students participating in the SEAD project will be prepared to assume leadership roles in scientific data management.”

Case studies developed during domain engagement activities will be used in graduate education courses at the University of Michigan and its partner institutions. A dedicated website and user workshops will extend the reach of the project and provide platforms for feedback and participation.

“SEAD will help address national goals to sustain and improve our environment,” Hedstrom said. “By developing methodology for investigators to collocate and easily access scientific data, we will be making real and vitally important contributions to scientists who grapple with the many environmental issues that confront us today.”

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