Press Archive

SDSC Hosts Third Annual GEON Meeting

Includes National Meeting on Cyberinfrastructure for the Geosciences

Published 05/17/2005

More than 115 geoscientists and information technology researchers - double last year's attendance - representing over two dozen institutions gathered in San Diego on May 5-6 for the third annual meeting of the GEON "Cyberinfrastructure for the Geosciences" project hosted by SDSC.
More than 115 geoscientists and information technology researchers - double last year's attendance - representing over two dozen institutions gathered in San Diego on May 5-6 for the third annual meeting of the GEON "Cyberinfrastructure for the Geosciences" project. Combined with the project meeting, GEON sponsored a broader "National Meeting on Research Frontiers in Cyberinfrastructure for the Geosciences." The joint meeting, which included progress reports on the many components of GEON, demonstrations of new software, and presentations from experts in related fields, was held at the Bahia Resort Hotel on Mission Bay, and hosted by the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), University of California, San Diego.

"This combined meeting marks a milestone for the geosciences and GEON, and shows the rapid growth of geoinformatics and interest in finding out about cyberinfrastructure and getting involved," said Chaitan Baru, coordinator of information technology in GEON and director of Science R&D at SDSC. "GEON's groundbreaking developments are attracting interest from many other projects - in fact, there were more people at the meeting from other projects than from GEON itself." In the three years since it began GEON has become a recognized leader for cyberinfrastructure in the Earth sciences.

GEON is a five year NSF large Information Technology Research project that is bringing together information technology (IT) and geoscience researchers from multiple institutions in a large-scale collaboration. To provide cyberinfrastructure, GEON is building data-sharing frameworks, identifying best practices, and developing useful capabilities and tools to enable dramatic advances in how geoscience is done. This will provide user-friendly science environments for access to scientific tools and data and vastly broaden the scope of scientific questions that can be answered.

From the beginning, GEON was conceived and funded to pioneer new cyberinfrastructure technologies that are discipline-wide, benefiting not just narrow areas of geological research but the broader earth sciences community as well. To sustain this initiative as a vigorous research environment that integrates many interacting areas requires an organizational structure designed to enable a long-term community effort. A key element in this, the GEON researchers and their colleagues believe, is participation by the national scientific societies, and to make this a reality they have been working with the Geological Society of America to encourage creation of a new division of geoinformatics.

With its large-scale resources and expertise in the technologies needed to enable the next generation of science, SDSC plays an important role in supporting projects such as GEON, and Fran Berman, Director of SDSC and holder of the Endowed Chair in High Performance Computing at UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering, spoke on "Building a Community through GEON." She began by pointing out that today's "computer" has grown into a coordinated set of hardware, software, and services that provide an end-to-end resource, known as Cyberinfrastructure. Projects such as GEON follow a boot-strapping process, where targeted project-focused tools and technologies drive the development of a common infrastructure, which in turn enables still other new application tools and technologies. In addition to creating technology, she pointed out that community building is an essential part of creating cyberinfrastructure - both allow researchers to do more together than they can accomplish on their own. Berman praised GEON as a leading example of broad community building, through a growing number of collaborations with such projects as BIRN, SEEK, CHRONOS and others, as well as multiple agencies from USGS to NASA. Finally, she looked ahead at 10 year issues and what the geosciences community can do to ensure a sustainable community effort, addressing issues of at-scale social dynamics, organization, and social impact as well as technical issues.

There were also remarks by NSF program officers on GEON's history and progress. Professor Krishna Sinha of Virginia Tech and Professor Randy Keller of the University of Texas at El Paso, PIs in GEON and geoscience leads of the Mid-Atlantic and Rocky Mountain science testbeds, respectively, discussed GEON's focus on science integration. In addition to the many presentations from GEON participants as well as researchers from different projects and agencies, there were 44 posters, more than 40 percent of them submitted by projects outside of GEON, a sign of the broad interest in cyberinfrastructure.

Connecting the Geosciences

Using GEON cyberinfrastructure, scientists will be able to much more efficiently ask questions that cut across several disciplines. An example of the type of question GEON scientists are asking is, "Why are volcanoes growing in the Rocky Mountain region?" This is puzzling to them because the volcanoes are growing in the middle of the North American plate, far from where volcanic activity is typically found, at the edges of tectonic plates such as the "ring of fire" on the Pacific rim. To solve this mystery, the scientists need to integrate data from many disciplines, including gravity, magnetic, tectonic, seismic, geochemical, and many other kinds of data.

To make this data integration possible, Krishna Sinha, a GEON PI from Virginia Tech, explains that GEON scientists are working with IT experts to develop "ontologies," which are used in "smart" computer-based frameworks that "know" the concepts and terms of each scientific domain. The ontologies enable the computing infrastructure to integrate across different types of information. This allows diverse data collections to be included (registered) and made visible in the same "space" for scientists to discover and query through the GEON portal - to integrate data sets for further exploration a researcher simply drags and drops data sets of interest into a data integration "shopping cart."

The meeting included such recognized ontology experts as Deborah McGuinness, co-director and senior research scientist at the Knowledge Systems Division of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University, and geoscientist David Soller of the USGS, who leads the National Geologic Map Database project, which is developing a set of ontologies for geologic data across the United States.

Other aspects of integrating science that GEON researchers are working on include map integration to let researchers present geoscience information on geographic information system (GIS) layers in a useful and intuitive way, along with knowledge-based integration of Web mapping services, using WMS as a standard.

Additional efforts include visualization, which is essential to help scientists understand today's large, complex data collections. A GEON visualization workshop was held March 1-2, 2005 at SDSC to explore approaches to representation of 4-D data, and to evaluate tools, refine GEON's visualization requirements, and address related issues of data discovery, retrieval, interoperability, and standards.

High Performance Computing

Chaitan Baru, a PI and coordinator of information technology in GEON and director of Science R&D at SDSC, noted the rapid growth of interest in cyberinfrastructure in the geosciences.
Using a "service oriented architecture," GEON is working to provide powerful tools and applications to the geoscience community so that they can perform data and compute-intensive analysis and modeling tasks. These resources are much larger scale than those a scientist would typically have access to from their desktop computer or lab. Ramon Arrowsmith, a GEON PI from Arizona State, presented work on developing Web services to facilitate the analysis of LIght Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) data sets, a remote-sensing technology used for observing geological and other Earth features. Due to the massive size of these data sets and the computing power needed to process them, they are being kept on computer systems at SDSC with the exceptional computing and storage capacity to deal with such data needs. Dogan Seber, a GEON PI and project manager from SDSC, presented work on converting the Synthetic Seismogram (SYNSEIS) application into a service that can be invoked by any user through the GEON portal, broadening access to this useful tool. For large-scale runs, the SYNSEIS program can be executed on high-capacity clusters such as those in the NSF TeraGrid.

Other presentations included one by CalIT2 director Larry Smarr on "Analyzing Large Earth Data Sets: New Tools from the OptIPuter and LOOKING Projects." CalIT2 also helped cosponsor the meeting.

Baru notes that all GEON cyberinfrastructure - integrated online databases with advanced search and query engines, online models, robust tools, grids, high performance computing, and applications - is intended to help scientists do their day-to-day work, not just large, "hero" computations. To achieve this GEON is following a two-tiered approach: following best practices, including open standards, commercial tools, and software developed in other intersecting projects such as the Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN) and the Science Environment for Ecological Knowledge (SEEK), and in parallel developing advanced technologies and conducting computer science research. This requires a close partnership between the geoscientists and information technology researchers.

Growing GEON Participation

Participants in the IT research component of GEON, coordinated by SDSC's Baru, include SDSC, Penn State University, San Diego State University, and the University of Texas at El Paso. As the geoscientists in GEON apply cyberinfrastructure to science, they are following a testbed approach. In the Rocky Mountain region, the researchers are addressing multi-disciplinary geoscience questions in the Dynamics, Structure, and Cenozoic Evolution of the Rocky Mountains (DYSCERN) project, coordinated by PI G. Randy Keller of the University of Texas at El Paso. The other science focus in GEON is the US mid-Atlantic Appalachian region, in the Crustal Evolution: Anatomy of an Orogen (CREATOR) project, coordinated by PI A. Krishna Sinha of Virginia Tech. In this testbed the scientists are combining data from multiple disciplines to decipher the history of how pieces of continental crust, or "terranes," are exchanged as the continents repeatedly join and break apart over hundreds of millions of years.

In each testbed project, the geological processes remain the subject of considerable scientific debate, and GEON is playing a critical role by providing infrastructure that facilitates the integration of the diverse data types required to "connect the dots" and build a comprehensive picture of the complex geological processes.

The science testbed efforts include researchers from eight other academic institutions - Arizona State University, Bryn Mawr College, Rice University, University of Arizona, University of Idaho, University of Missouri, University of Utah, and UNAVCO. The Digital Library for Earth Sciences Education (DLESE) is coordinating the GEON education and outreach program.

GEON now also includes partners from a number of different universities and agencies, indicating the growing recognition of the importance of cyberinfrastructure for the next generation of science. Major partners include the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC). There are also partnerships with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and NASA. GEON partnerships also include the earth system history project, CHRONOS, the hydrology project Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI) Hydrologic Information System (HIS), the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), EarthChem, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technologies (Calit2), and Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (Center for Scientific Investigation and Higher Education in Ensenada, CICESE). Industrial partners supporting GEON include ESRI, GeoFusion, Hewlett Packard, IBM, and GeoReference Online.

GEON is also leveraging related research by collaborating with projects in other disciplines, for example, the NIH BIRN project in neuroscience; the NSF SEEK project in ecological science; the GRid Assessment Probes (GRASP) project; the NMI GRIDS Center; the NSF TeraGrid; and the National Laboratory for Advanced Data Research (NLADR).

Cyberinfrastructure Education

Because the new information technologies are profoundly changing the way science is done, education is an essential activity in GEON, for both current scientists and the next generation. A major activity that GEON is sponsoring is the popular Summer Institute for Geoscientists. The second annual institute will held July 18-22 at SDSC on the campus of UCSD as a week-long, hands-on course that introduces geoscientists to commonly used and emergent information technology tools. More information and online registration are at the GEON website at

In addition to education in the Summer Institute and elsewhere in such advanced topics as ontology-based data registration, there are also basic needs such as easy-to-use data management tools and education in best data practices for geoscientists and students. In some areas of geoscience, data collections are still not routinely in digital form, and GEON researchers are working to help scientists in these areas be able to access the digital world of cyberinfrastructure. -Paul Tooby.