Thursday, February 22, 2018
Known Unknowns: Exploring New Frontiers in Information Management on Okeanos Explorer

Known Unknowns: Exploring New Frontiers in Information Management on Okeanos Explorer

by Fred Gorell, Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

Little Hercules, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, the only Federal ship to systematically explore our largely unknown ocean, acts as our eyes on the seafloor, recording high definition video of deep-sea creatures, geological structures, and underwater archaeology sites. And when Little Hercules is back onboard the ship, the crew of the Okeanos Explorer is busy mapping the sea floor to find new targets for exploration. These expeditions generate massive amounts of data, giving scientists a wealth of information to study. But we need to organize and catalogue these data so that scientists can access it now and in the future. Data collected today might help us answer research questions we haven't even thought of yet. Information management is an important part of scientific explorations.

ROV surveying the seafloor

ROV surveying the seafloor

Little Hercules, the ROV used on the Okeanos Explorer, taking high definition video of deep-sea creatures. The video is recorded as part of the expedition data and show n in realtime on the Okeanos Explorer and can be view ed on the web by scientists and the public. Credit: NOAA

When Discovering Earth’s Final Frontier: a U.S. Strategy for Ocean Exploration, was issued in 2000 as the report of the President’s Panel on Ocean Exploration, it recommended the formation of a program for ocean exploration, saying “We must go where no one has ever gone before, ‘see’ the oceans through a new set of technological ‘eyes,’ and record these journeys for posterity”. To answer this call NOAA formed the Office of Ocean Exploration, which later became the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER). The report also highlighted the importance of information management to a successful exploration program, calling for exploring new frontiers in ocean exploration information management.

“Openly sharing information in near real-time supports the excitement and value of ocean discovery, allowing many scientists and others ashore to participate in an expedition as it unfolds,” said Sharon Mesick, regional science officer in NOAA’s National Coastal Data Development Center at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and the lead of an extramural Integrated Project Team (IPT) formed to support OER’s information management needs.

With live connections between NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and shore-based scientists and other audiences ashore, those needs include making data available as quickly as possible to wide audiences, a huge task given the volume of data and shortened delivery deadlines. High-resolution video from one expedition can require more than 25 terabytes (more than 25,000 gigabytes) of storage, and video is just one example of collected data.

Researcher Chris German points to bathymetric data

Researcher Chris German points to bathymetric data

Dr. German discusses the technology that enabled him to share information and work with on-shore scientists during his time as lead scientist on the 2011 Mid-Cayman Rise expedition. Credit: NOAA

“I think of ocean expedition data as the enormous tail of the expedition—the vital information that will become building blocks for products important to NOAA, the ocean science community and the nation—products that will advance science, catalyze follow-on research and energize education. Our challenge is to move that data quickly from the ocean to shore and to make it accessible and searchable for all those seeking information to better understand the ocean,” said Mesick.

Through the use of telepresence technology – satellite and high-speed internet connections between ship and shore -- newly gathered information from NOAA ocean expeditions, including live high-definition video from the seafloor, is available to the widest of audiences. Mission data are available to participating scientists in remote Exploration Command Centers and a subset of information products are available to the public, all in near real-time. The OER Digital Atlas provides direct access to expedition data from a variety sources, including NOAA archives, NOAA Library catalogs, and geospatial databases.

Okeanos expedition data is available to more than scientists – lesson plans for Grades 5-12 are also found on the Digital Atlas website, with additional collections added soon after each expedition. “The activities and lessons are just so ‘right on’ and appropriate for my students. The topics cover the most pressing and promising issues of today’s world. My students are more eager than ever to learn through computer activities and lessons, and in giving them a chance to learn about and interact with these activities and lessons I believe is just the right kind of challenge they need,” said a teacher familiar with the OER educational tools.

Screenshot of the OER Digital Atlas

Screenshot of the OER Digital Atlas

The Digital Atlas is a treasure trove of information that allows access to NOAA archives, NOAA library catalogs, expedition data, research publications and ocean exploration education lesson plans. Credit: NOAA

Automated procedures or ”data pipelines” allow near real-time information access as well as fast turnaround to National Archive centers, providing broad public access to the full range of expedition documentation, data and information products. “Data [transfer] from the Okeanos Explorer [is] so efficient that the complete data collection from each expedition is fully documented and publicly accessible from the NOAA National Data Centers within 60 to 90 days after the mission,” said Susan Gottfried, OER data management coordinator at NOAA’s National Coastal Data Development Center.

Post-mission data and products are stored and maintained by NOAA’s data centers, ensuring that future scientists will have the information they need to answer questions that may be undefined today. Standardized documentation ensures that data collection methods and circumstances will be fully understandable by future data users.

Though this information management system has been successful, there is still much work to be done. As data collection sensors, instrumentation, and the ways we store information evolve, we must continually reassess our approach and look for opportunities to improve. There are many “known unknowns” in managing expedition information.

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