Information Sciences Institute
University of Southern California
The first field excursion of the EarthCube EC3 project took place on August 4-8, 2014. These field excursions are designed to facilitate a dialogue between field-based geologists, and computer and cognitive scientists concerning the unique problems faced by the field-based geological community. The goal is to break down the artificial barriers between subfields and allow researchers to brainstorm about innovations to transform how field science is done today.
Field scientists investigate the natural world in situ through recording observations, taking samples, and collecting field data. The field sciences present specific challenges with regards to data management and incorporating the digitization of analog data into the workflow of the field-based scientist. These challenges represent unique research avenues for interdisciplinary approaches and have the potential for far-reaching, broad impacts for the research community as a whole.
Participants for this field excursion were selected to include a breadth of professional backgrounds and perspectives. Their expertise covered geosciences (structural geology, sedimentology, paleontology, petrology, geochronology), computer science (artificial intelligence, databases, geospatial computing), cyberinfrastructure (data services, data repositories), cognitive science, linguistics, and library science. They included professors, scientists, government researchers, post-doctoral students, graduate students, and high-school students.
Participants stayed in a field research center and visited several locations in Yosemite National Park and Owens Valley in California. A typical day schedule included breakfast at the center, whole day out in the field, dinner at the center, and group debrief and discussion in the evening.
During the day, the geoscientists would show how data is collected in the field. In the evenings, the computer scientists presented interesting techniques to collect, analyze, and visualize field data. There were lively discussions in smaller groups during van rides, hikes, and meals.
The focus of the first day was understanding the collection of physical samples from the field, and the use of field notebooks and mobile devices to record data and observations.
The computer scientists learned to describe rock composition, to measure planar orientations with a Brunton and with a Frieberger compass, and to make field notebook entries. Participants experienced the difficulty of collecting data in the rain, the lack of precision of mobile apps and other electronic devices, and the idiosyncratic notations used in field notebook entries.
The geoscientists learned about existing applications for field data collection, including apps for mobile devices and GIS-based software for ruggedized laptops. Many applications make it hard to export data in standard formats to analyze in the lab, are not designed to work with GIS systems, and do not collect the kinds of information that one would want to record in the field.
All the trip participants met during the evening to discuss requirements for applications and devices to take in the field. With better technology in the field, geoscientists can be orders of magnitude more efficient in data collection. Applications should collect a variety of types of data, offering the more common choices in standard forms while allowing scientists to input qualitative observations and personal interpretations. When samples are collected, they are often not shared and when they are there are no standards to specify metadata to describe them.
The second day was devoted to understanding geological maps, paleontology field data collection, stratigraphy, and structural geology.
The computer scientists learned that very different field data and observations are collected depending on the discipline in geosciences, the scientific question under study, and the amount of time available in the field. They also learned that sketching is a key aspect of field studies, particularly in stratigraphy and structural geology, where sketches capture observations as well as interpretations and models.
The geoscientists learned about possible new technologies that would significantly improve field data collection. Speech recognition interfaces would enable hands-free data collection, so scientists could focus on the site rather than the notebook. Intelligent sketching tools could digitize the sketches immediately, enabling retrieval and comparison of stratigraphy maps from different locations and more efficient modeling. Robot drones could take pictures of unaccessible locations and do reconnaissance of large areas.
In the evening, all the participants discussed how the information collected in the field is used back in the lab. A paper was analyzed in detail, sketching the workflow that describes the laboratory (geochemistry, geochronology, x-ray, etc) and computational steps followed using the data collected in the field. The importance of reproducible science was discussed, and the need to record the provenance of all the digital products derived from samples. Both physical samples and the data derived from them should be shared in open repositories. Standards should be developed that would enable describing them with commonly useful metadata.
The computer scientists learned to use maps to locate a site, and how to do mapping of structures. The reconnaissance of an area involves identifying features and placing them in geological and elevation maps. Special features are sought to create models of the formations and their evolution over time.
The geoscientists experimented with digital mapping tools in tablets and ruggedized laptops. They used GPS devices and GIS mapping tools. A wealth of information could be layered in the digital maps that would be helpful in analyzing and interpreting data while in the field.
At the end of the day, all participants discussed technologies to improve mapping and location-based services in the field. Virtual reality tools could overlay information on the physical landscape and its features. GIS mapping tools and visualizations could be brought into the field to integrate layered information about the locations visited. Trip preparation could be greatly enhanced if all prior publications and data were geolocated and brought to the attention of a scientist well in advance of a field trip.
The computer scientists learned about observing volcanic features, such as columnar joints, as well as metamorphic fabrics and shear zones. They learned more about the diversity and heterogeneity of information collected in the field. They started to appreciate the need for sharing information across different geosciences disciplines.
The geologists learned how other disciplines in science (biology, medicine, astronomy) share data, software, instruments, and other information that fundamentally changes how science is done. They discussed new avenues of research that would be enabled in geosciences through the NSF EarthCube initiative.
The last hike concluded with a group discussion of metadata at the shore of Lake George in Mammoth Mountain. Topics included what is metadata and different types of metadata, how metadata is used, and why it is hard to capture. Breakout groups scattered around the mountain to discuss useful metadata that could be collected in the field. All the participants synthesized the discussions into a wish list of metadata for field science that would enable data sharing and dissemination of scientific data and findings.
A recording of a presentation at the Information Science Institute provides a view from a computer scientist on this trip, and outlines research opportunities for artificial intelligence in field science including information integration, semantic representations, intelligent assistants, speech recognition and natural language processing, intelligent sketching, and robotics.
A blog entry titled "Cyber-Geology on the NSF Earthcube EC3 Field Trip" discusses opportunities for virtual reality, digital mapping tools, and other technologies for interactive geology.
Last updated: February 2015