Is open science the way to go?

By Luke Kirwan, IIASA open access manager

At this year’s European Geosciences Union a panel of experts convened to debate the benefits of open science. Open science means making as much of the scientific output and processes publicly visible and accessible, including publications, models, and data sets.

Open science includes not just open access to research findings, but the idea of sharing data, methods, and processes. ©PongMoji | Shutterstock

In terms of the benefits of open science the panelists—who included representatives from academia, government, and academic publishing—generally agreed that openness favors increased collaboration and the development of large networks, especially in terms of geoscience data, which improves precision in the interpretation of results. There is evidence that sharing data and linking to publications increases both readership and citations. A growing number of funding bodies and journals are also requiring researchers to make the data underlining a publication as publicly available as possible. In the context of Horizon 2020, researchers are instructed to make their data ‘as open as possible, as closed as necessary.’

This statement was intentionally left vague, because the European Research Council (ERC) realized that a one size fits all approach would not be able to cover the entirety of research practices across the scientific community, said Jean-Paul Bourguignon, president of the ERC.

Barbara Romanowicz from Collège de France and Institut de Physique du Glove de Paris also pointed to the need for disciplines to develop standardized metadata standards and a community ethic to facilitate interoperability. She also pointed out that the requirements for making raw data openly accessible are quite different to those for making models accessible. These problems require increased resources to be adequately addressed.

Roche DG, Lanfear R, Binning SA, Haff TM, Schwanz LE, Cain KE, Kokko H, Jennions MD, Kruuk LEB (2014). Troubleshooting public data archiving: suggestions to increase participation. PLOS Biology. 12 (1): e1001779. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001779.

Playing devil’s advocate, Helen Glaves from the British Geological Survey pointed to several areas of potential concern. She questioned whether the costs involved in providing long-term preservation and access to data are the most efficient use of taxpayers money. She also suggested that charging for access could be used to generate revenues to fund future research. However, possibly a more salient concern for researchers that she raised was  the fear of scientists that making their data and research available in good faith, could allow their hard work to be passed off by another researcher as their own.

Many of these issues were raised by audience members during the questions and answer session. Scientists pointed out that research data involved a lot of hard work to collate, they had concerns about inappropriate secondary reuse, jobs and research grants are highly competitive. However, the view was also expressed that paying for access to research fundamentally amounts to ‘double taxation’ if the research has been funded by public money, and that even restrictive sharing is better than not sharing at all. It was also argued that incentivising sharing through increased citations and visibility would both help encourage researchers to make their research more open and aide researchers in the pursuit of grants or research positions. To bring about these changes in research practices will involve investing in training the next generation of scientists in these new processes.

Here at IIASA we are fully committed to open access and in the library, we assist our researchers with any queries or issues they may have with widely sharing their research. As well as improving the visibility of research publications through Pure, our institutional repository, we can also assist with making research data discoverable and citable.

A video of the discussion is available on YouTube.

Bringing satellite data down to Earth

By Linda See, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Satellites have changed the way that we see the world. For more than 40 years, we have had regular images of the Earth’s surface, which have allowed us to monitor deforestation, visualize dramatic changes in urbanization, and comprehensively map the Earth’s surface. Without satellites, our understanding of the impacts that humans are having on the terrestrial ecosystem would be much diminished.

The Sentinel-2 satellite provides high-resolution land-cover data. © ESA/ATG medialab

Over the past decade, many more satellites have been launched, with improvements in how much detail we can see and the frequency at which locations are revisited. This means that we can monitor changes in the landscape more effectively, particularly in areas where optical imagery is used and cloud cover is frequent. Yet perhaps even more important than these technological innovations, one of the most pivotal changes in satellite remote sensing was when NASA opened up free access to Landsat imagery in 2008. As a result, there has been a rapid uptake in the use of the data, and researchers and organizations have produced many new global products based on these data, such as Matt Hansen’s forest cover maps, JRC’s water and global human settlement layers, and global land cover maps (FROM-GLC and GlobeLand30) produced by different groups in China.

Complementing Landsat, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel-2 satellites provide even higher spatial and temporal resolution, and once fully operational, coverage of the Earth will be provided every five days. Like NASA, ESA has also made the data freely available. However, the volume of data is much higher, on the order of 1.6 terabytes per day. These data volumes, as well as the need to pre-process the imagery, can pose real problems to new users. Pre-processing can also lead to incredible duplication of effort if done independently by many different organizations around the world. For example, I attended a recent World Cover conference hosted by ESA, and there were many impressive presentations of new applications and products that use these openly available data streams. But most had one thing in common: they all downloaded and processed the imagery before it was used. For large map producers, control over the pre-processing of the imagery might be desirable, but this is a daunting task for novice users wanting to really exploit the data.

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In order to remove these barriers, we need new ways of providing access to the data that don’t involve downloading and pre-processing every new data point. In some respects this could be similar to the way in which Google and Bing provide access to very high-resolution satellite imagery in a seamless way. But it’s not just about visualization, or Google and Bing would be sufficient for most user needs. Instead it’s about being able to use the underlying spectral information to create derived products on the fly. The Google Earth Engine might provide some of these capabilities, but the learning curve is pretty steep and some programming knowledge is required.

Instead, what we need is an even simpler system like that produced by Sinergise in Slovenia. In collaboration with Amazon Web Services, the Sentinel Hub provides access to all Sentinel-2 data in one place, with many different ways to view the imagery, including derived products such as vegetation status or on-the-fly creation of user-defined indices. Such a system opens up new possibilities for environmental monitoring without the need to have either remote sensing expertise, programming ability, or in-house processing power. An exemplary web application using Sentinel Hub services, the Sentinel Playground, allows users to browse the full global multi-spectral Sentinel-2 archive in matter of seconds.

This is why we have chosen Sentinel Hub to provide data for our LandSense Citizen Observatory, an initiative to harness remote sensing data for land cover monitoring by citizens. We will access a range of services from vegetation monitoring through to land cover change detection and place the power of remote sensing within the grasp of the crowd.

Without these types of innovations, exploitation of the huge volumes of satellite data from Sentinel-2, and other newly emerging sources of satellite data, will remain within the domain of a small group of experts, creating a barrier that restricts many potential applications of the data. Instead we must encourage developments like Sentinel Hub to ensure that satellite remote sensing becomes truly usable by the masses in ways that benefits everyone.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

What will it take to trust scientific data from citizens?

By Linda See, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

One of the biggest questions when it comes to citizen science is the quality of the data. Scientists worry that citizens are not as rigorous in their data collection as professionals might be, which calls into question the reliability of the data.  At a meeting this month in Brussels on using citizen science to track invasive species, we grappled with the question: what it will take to trust this data source, particularly if it’s going to be used to alert authorities regarding the presence of an invasive species in a timely manner.

This discussion got me thinking about what other types of data are supplied by citizens that authorities simply trust, for example, when a citizen calls the emergency services to report an incident, such as a fire. Such reports are investigated by the authorities and the veracity of the alert is not questioned. Instead authorities are obliged to investigate such reports.

Yet the statistics show that false alarms do occur. For example, in 2015, there were more than 2.5 million false fire alarms in the United States, of which just under a third were due to system malfunctions. The remaining calls were unintentional, malicious, or other types of false alarms, such as a bomb scare. Statistics for calls to the emergency services more generally show similar trends in different European countries, where the percentage of false reports range from 40% in Latvia up to 75% in Lithuania and Norway. So why is it that we inherently trust this data source, despite the false alarm rate, and not data from citizen scientists? Is it because life is threatened or because fires are easier to spot than invasive species, or simply because emergency services are mandated with the requirement to investigate?

Volunteers monitor butterflies in Mount Rainier National Park, as part of the Cascade Butterfly Project, a citizen science effort organized by the US National Park Service © Kevin Bacher | US National Park Service

A recent encouraging development for citizen science was the signing of an executive order by President Obama on 6 January 2017, which gave federal agencies the jurisdiction to use citizen science and crowdsourced data in their operations. Do we need something similar in the EU or at the level of member states? And what will it really take for authorities to trust scientific data from citizens?

To move from the current situation of general distrust in citizen science data to one in which the data are viewed as a potentially useful source of information, we need further action. First we need to showcase examples of where data collected by citizens are already being used for monitoring. At the meeting in Brussels, Kyle Copas of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) noted that up to 40% of the data records in GBIF are supplied by citizens, which surprised many of the meeting participants. Data from GBIF are used for national and international monitoring of biodiversity. Secondly, we need to quantify the value of information coming from citizen scientists. For example, how much money could have been saved if reports on invasive species from citizens were acted upon? Third, we need to forge partnerships with government agencies to institutionally embed citizen science data streams into everyday operations. For example, the LandSense citizen observatory, a new project, aims to do exactly this. We are working with the National Mapping Agency in France to use citizen science data to update their maps but there are many other similar examples with other local and national agencies that will be tested over the next 3.5 years.

Finally, we need to develop quality assurance systems that can be easily plugged into the infrastructure of existing organizations. The EU-funded COBWEB project began building such a citizen science-based quality assurance system, which we are continuing to develop in LandSense as a service. Providing out-of-the-box tools may be one solution to help organizations to begin working with citizen science data more seriously at an institutional level.

IIASA researchers test the Fotoquest app, a citizen science game developed at IIASA. ©Katherine Leitzell | IIASA

These measures will clearly take time to implement so I don’t expect that the discussion on the quality of the data will be removed from any agenda for some time to come. However, I look forward to the day when the main issue revolves around how we can possibly handle the masses of big data coming from citizens, a situation that many of us would like to be in.

More Information about the meeting:

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.


New portal links local and global flood data

By Ian McCallum, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Communities need information to prepare for and respond to floods – to inform risk reduction strategies and strengthen resilience, improve land use planning, and generally prepare for when disaster strikes. But across much of the developing world, data are sparse at best for understanding the dynamics of flood risk. When and if disaster strikes, massive efforts are required in the response phase to develop or update information about basic infrastructure, for example, roads, bridges and buildings. In terms of strengthening community resilience it is important to know about the existence and location of such features as community shelters, medical clinics, drinking water, and more.

The risk Geo-Wiki platform
The Risk Geo-Wiki is online platform established in 2014, which acts not only as a repository of available flood related spatial information, but also provides for two-way information exchange. You can use the platform to view available information about flood risk at any location on the globe, along with geo-tagged photos uploaded by yourself or other users via a mobile application Geo-Wiki Pictures. The portal is intended to be of practical use to community leaders and NGOs, governments, academia, industry and citizens who are interested in better understanding the information available to strengthen flood resilience.

The Risk Geo-Wiki showing geo-tagged photographs overlaid upon satellite imagery across the Karnali basin, Nepal. © IIASA

With only a web browser, and a simple registration, anyone can access flood-related spatial information worldwide. Available data range from flood hazard, exposure and risk information, to biophysical and socioeconomic data. All of this information can be overlaid upon satellite imagery or OpenStreetMap, along with on-ground pictures taken with the related mobile application Geo-Wiki Pictures.  You can use these data to understand the quality of available global products or to visualize the numerous local datasets provided for specific flood affected communities. People interested in flood resilience will benefit from visiting the platform and are welcome to provide additional information to fill many of the existing gaps in information.

Flood resilience and data gaps
One of the aims of the Risk Geo-Wiki is to identify and address data gaps on flood resilience and community-based disaster risk reduction. For example, there is a big disconnect between information suitable for global flood risk modelling and that necessary for community planning. Global modelers need local information with which to validate their forecasts while community planners want both detailed local information and an understanding of their communities in the wider region. The Flood Resilience Alliance is working with many interested groups to help fill this gap and at the same time help strengthen community resilience against floods and to develop and disseminate knowledge and expertise on flood resilience.

The Risk Geo-Wiki showing modelled global flood risk data overlaid at community level. While this data is suitable at the national and regional level, it is too coarse for informing community level decisions. © IIASA

Practical applications for local communities
Already, communities in Nepal, Peru, and Mexico have uploaded data to the site and are working with us on developing it further.  For local communities who have uploaded spatial information to the site, it allows them to visualize their information overlaid upon satellite imagery or OpenStreetMap. Furthermore, if they have used Geo-Wiki Pictures to document efforts in their communities, these geo-tagged photos will also be available.

Community and NGO members mapping into OSM with mobile devices in the Karnali basin, Nepal. © Wei Liu, IIASA

In addition to local communities who have uploaded information, the Risk Geo-Wiki will provide important data to others interested in flood risk, including researchers, the insurance industry, NGOs, and donors. The portal provides a source of information that is both easily visualized and overlaid on satellite imagery with local images taken on the ground if available. Such a platform allows anyone interested to better understand flood events over their regions and communities of interest. It is, however, highly dependent upon the information that is made available to the platform, so we invite you to contribute. In particular if you have geographic information related to flood exposure, hazard, risk and vulnerability in the form of images or spatial data we would appreciate you getting in contact with us.

About the portal:
The Risk Geo-Wiki portal was established by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in the context of the Flood Resilience Alliance. It was developed by the Earth Observation Systems Group within the Ecosystems Services and Management Program at IIASA.

Further information

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Beating the heat with more data on urban form and function

By Linda See, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

We had another very hot summer this year in Europe and many other parts of the world. Many European cities, including London, Madrid, Frankfurt, Paris and Geneva, broke new temperature records.

Cities are particularly vulnerable to increasing temperatures because of a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. First measured more than a half a century ago by Tim Oke, the increased temperatures measured in urban areas are a result of urban land use, or higher amounts of impervious surfaces such as concrete and concentrated urban structures. The urban heat island effect impacts human health and well-being. It’s not just a matter of comfort: during the heat wave in 2003, more than 70,000 people in Europe are estimated to have perished, mostly urban dwellers.


Summer 2015 in Ljubljana, Slovenia. ©K. Leitzell | IIASA

While climate models have many uncertainties, they do all agree that the urban heat island effect will increase in frequency and duration in the future. A recent article by Hannah Hoag in Nature paints a bleak picture of just how unprepared cities are for dealing with increasing temperatures. The paper cites positive and negative examples of mitigation from various cities but it falls short of suggesting a more widely applicable solution.

What we need is a standardized way of approaching the problem. Underlying this lack of standards is the paucity of data on the form and function of cities. By form I mean the geometry of the city–a 3D model of the buildings and road network, and information on the building materials—as well as a map of the basic land cover including impervious surfaces like roads and sidewalks, and areas of vegetation such as gardens, parks, and fields. Function refers to the building use, road types, use of irrigation and air conditioning and other factors that affect local atmospheric conditions. As climate models become more highly resolved, they will need vast amounts of such information to feed into them.

These issues are what led me and my colleagues (Prof Gerald Mills of UCD, Dr Jason Ching of UNC and many others) to conceive the World Urban Database and Access Portal Tools (WUDAPT) initiative ( WUDAPT is a community-driven data collection effort that draws upon the considerable network of urban climate modelers around the world. We start by dividing a city into atmospherically distinct areas, or Local Climate Zones (LCZs) developed by Stewart and Oke, which provides a standard methodology for characterizing cities that can improve the parameters needed for data-hungry urban climate models.

Using freely available satellite imagery of the Earth’s surface, the success of the approach relies on local urban experts to provide representative examples of different LCZs across their city. We are currently working towards creating an LCZ classification for all C40 cities (a network of cities committed to addressing climate change) but are encouraging volunteers to work on any cities that are of interest to them. We refer to this as Level 0 data collection because it provides a basic classification for each city. Further detailed data collection efforts (referred to as Levels 1 and 2) will use a citizen science approach to gather information on building materials and function, landscape morphology and vegetation types.

The Local Climate Zone (LCZ) map for Kiev.

The Local Climate Zone (LCZ) map for Kiev.

WUDAPT will equip climate modelers and urban planners with the data needed to examine a range of mitigation and adaptation scenarios: For example what effect will green roofs, changes in land use or changes in the urban energy infrastructure have on the urban heat island and future climate?

The ultimate goal of WUDAPT is to develop a very detailed open access urban database for all major cities in the world, which will be valuable for many other applications from energy modelling to greenhouse gas assessment. If we want to improve the science of urban climatology and help cities develop their own urban heat adaptation plans, then WUDAPT represents one concrete step towards reaching this goal. Contact us if you want to get involved.

About the WUDAPT Project
The WUDAPT concept has been developed during two workshops, one held in Dublin Ireland in July 2014 and the second in conjunction with the International Conference on Urban Climate in Toulouse; a third workshop is set to take place in Hong Kong in December 2015. More information can be found on the WUDAPT website at:

Bechtel, B., Alexander, P., Böhner, J., Ching, J., Conrad, O., Feddema, J., Mills, G., See, L. and Stewart, I. 2015. Mapping local climate zones for a worldwide database of form and function of cities.  International Journal of Geographic Information, 4(1), 199-219.

Hoag, H. 2015. How cities can beat the heat. Nature, 524, 402-404.

See, L., Mills, G. and Ching. J. 2015. Community initiative counters urban heat. Nature, 526,43 (01 October 2015) doi:10.1038/526043b

Stewart, I.D. and Oke, T.R. 2012. Local Climate Zones for urban temperature studies. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 93(12), 1879-1900.

Wake, B. 2012. Defining local zones. Nature Climate Change, 2, 487.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.