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Feature - Can a digital earth save the planet?

Feature - Can a digital earth save the planet?

(Thumbnail is in Image Manager at Iceland_Volcano_S.jpg)

Ash spewing from Iceland's volcano, "Eyjafjallajoekull' in 2010, in an image from the European Space Agency's Envisat satellite. Image courtesy ESA (European Space Agency).

With climate change hot on the agenda, activists, scientists and politicians are looking into what can be done to provide a united front against this global issue.

At the 8th e-Infrastructure Concertation Meeting, held at CERN last Thursday and Friday, a networking event organized by the European Commission (EC), one such project aims to consolidate the various Earth sciences. Their work could reduce the loss of life and property due to natural disasters, and help us better understand how our planet's climate is changing.

Ground European Network for Earth Science Interoperations - Digital Earth Community (GENESI-DEC) is focused on providing a virtual resource for scientists working on Earth Science topics. Supported by grid and cloud technologies, they are creating an online hub connected to networks of digital repositories around the globe. Their tools will help users search for, sort through, manage and interpret huge data sets. The scientific communities they are helping include Seafloor and Ocean, the Global Atmosphere, Global Change Earth, and the Black Sea Catchment Observatories.

Users will be able to access GENESI-DEC's data infrastructure though a web portal and interrogate its resources using a semantic-based search engine and on-demand processing capabilities. 'On-demand' tools allow users to define parameters for executing jobs on grids or clouds. They will be able to generate and combine maps showing temperatures of the seas, flood extents and crustal deformation from earthquakes, and gather data from meteorological stations, GPS sensors, satellites, ocean buoys and more.

The study of our planet, from climatology to meteorology, has fragmented and it is the Digital Earth Community's aim to re-connect these disciplines. Collaboration, sharing of ideas and a hub of comprehensive scientific data is a key requirement in facing the global challenges of our planet's fast-changing climate and ecosystems; and how this will affect us all. By bridging the knowledge gap between different scientific branches, cross-pollination of communities should improve and drive progress.

Interferogram satellite image of Earth crustal deformation as a result of earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy. Image courtesy GENESI-DEC/CNR-IREA

Better search

Currently, GENESI-DEC is looking at how to integrate semantic methods to their portal's search engine. Semantic search seeks to improve upon the search accuracy of a user's request. The goal is to use the meaning in language to link data sets on the web and provide more relevant search information, instead of a search list such as Google's. The project is working with OpenSearch for this task.

OpenSearch is a list of general Extensible Markup Language specifications allowing search engines and search clients to connect via a common set of formats. As the web's content continues to grow, search engines are unable to crawl and index all of its content. Therefore, OpenSearch strives to unify search results, even if content is deeply embedded within websites.

One of the main challenges facing GENESI-DEC is combining data and resources of various scientific fields. This is because each data set has a different format, metadata (data about data, e.g. information about time and date of a webpage's creation), policy and license defined by its data owner. Roberto Cossu, the Digital Earth Community project director said: "We are combining really diverse communities, they use personalized technical and scientific languages, and have their own specific needs and expertise."

Conversely, at the 8th e-Infrastructure Concertation Meeting last week, there was ample opportunity for similar and dissimilar projects to swap notes. Cossu said; "We want to share our views and experiences, while also starting new collaborations." Finally, this was a rare chance for delegates from e-science infrastructure projects to learn and collaborate face-to-face.

-Adrian Giordani, iSGTW

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