EarthCube Working Together with Standards and Specifications

Background for the EarthCube document, Recommended Standards and Specifications for EarthCube Projects. EarthCube Leadership Council: 7 May 2020. https://doi.org/10.6075/J0QR4VMG

Guest Blog by Ken Rubin

In any group effort, following accepted norms and practices helps bring cohesion to the outcomes.   When it comes to the development and use of digital tools, this is a key to ensuring accessibility, continuity, usability, and interoperability. After a year-long development effort built on earlier ones, it gives me great pleasure on behalf of EarthCube governance to present and discuss the development of the community’s “Recommended Standards and Specifications for EarthCube Projects”.  This document outlines a few requirements and mostly recommendations, plus some minimal and best-practice ways to achieve them, for EarthCube resource development. I hope you will take the time to read them and to incorporate these principles into your workflows.  Here I want to speak a bit to how we developed them, and why they do not meet the rigid “specifications” definition as might be interpreted by a software engineer.

EarthCube has always prided itself on being a strong community of researchers and developers who bring expertise from a wide range of geoscience and computer science disciplines, and who have a wide-ranging vision of what EarthCube can achieve.  As a group, we haven’t always agreed on all aspects of the enterprise, such as architecture, vocabulary standardization across science domains, and implementation of centralized versus distributed digital resources, but we have always agreed that we want to develop and deploy usable tools to support enhanced Geoscientific workflows for the betterment of the science.

With this umbrella of conditions, you can imagine that the development of specifications for EarthCube would be no easy task.  You would be right. There are balances to consider between strict specifications that might limit flexibility for certain scientific applications and completely open criteria that might be optimized for the development of one or another resource but make it difficult to interweave that resource into the broader EarthCube effort. And there are considerations about how to help sustain a resource after funding for it ceases.  

Some important features our document are:

  • A focus on core principles and best practices rather than listing standards and specifications for every aspect of the resource development cycle.
  • The decision to leave some attributes up to developers to define, with an inherent goal of building and populating a registry of shared and consistent information relating to EarthCube projects and other similar cyberinfrastructure.  
  • Recommendations that address topics such as discoverability and accessibility, interoperability, metadata requirements (e.g., documentation of OS and other computational requirements), access to code, resource sustainability, and packaging and distribution.

A little History:

There have been several significant efforts on the way to this presentation of Standards and Specifications for EarthCube.  Several documents that were the culmination of prior months-long discussions of this topic informed our effort, including a 2017 Report by the Architecture Refinement Workshop [LINK], a 2019 white paper from the Standards and Specifications Working Group of the Earth Cube Technology and Architecture Committee (TAC) [LINK], and a 2020 White paper co-authored by members of the Council of Funded Projects and the EarthCube Community Office [LINK].  Collectively they set the parameters of the “official” document, which describe how to achieve programmatic goals for component architecture and interoperability, open community conditions for standards development, and the needs of EarthCube affiliated data repositories and existing EarthCube projects. Furthermore, they reflect guidance from the TAC that a key need for advancing the EarthCube initiative is precise and standardized product descriptions, which is why there is such a strong focus in these Specifications on registries.

Making EarthCube as FAIR as possible:

Last but not least, the Standards and Specifications promote the application of FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reproducible) principles, as well as open science and transparency in most if not all of what we do as a group. To this end, in 2019 the Leadership Council under my leadership presented a statement Promoting FAIR Data and Data Resources for the Geosciences Community (see https://www.earthcube.org/FAIR). We are still working to assess the status of the enterprise and to implement some of them.  Yet these recommendations serve as an invitation to new community members to embrace FAIR concepts and to become an informed participant in the interoperability aspects of the EarthCube program. The principles expressed there are strongly represented in the Standards and Specifications, the NSF program solicitation, and the activities of the EarthCube Office (ECO) on behalf of the community.

Final thoughts:

Without any guidance, resource development and integration under the EarthCube banner would have remained too open-ended and ill-defined to meet collective goals. So we buckled down, engaged our community (especially representatives from currently funded projects on the EarthCube Council of Funded Projects), and wrote these Standards and Specifications.

At the same time, we consider this a living document, open to changes and enhancements to best serve our community now and in the future.  Standards and Specifications for cyberinfrastructure to support cross-disciplinary science will continue to change as technologies evolve and new science domains join the effort. The ideas expressed here focus on current and future NSF-funded efforts to create new EarthCube and related cyberinfrastructure that promotes interoperability, sustainability, usability and repurposing (often via open-source software). We welcome your comments and input. And we truly hope that future project software developers will engage with the EarthCube Office (ECO) Technology Team to take advantage of and incorporate the current Standards and Specifications, as well as learn about latest features and become part of the conversation in making future recommendations.

Ken Rubin served as EarthCube Leadership Council Chair from 2018 to May 2020.

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