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Go with the workflow

ISI Director of Knowledge Technologies Yolanda Gil (Photo/Courtesy of USC Viterbi)

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Sciences Institute (ISI) is playing a leading role in a new National Science Foundation (NSF) effort to make earth science and geological research more effective, collaborative and efficient.

Known as the EarthCube Workflow Community Group, the initiative officially began on April 1. It is co-directed by ISI Director of Knowledge Technologies Yolanda Gil and ISI Project Leader Ewa Deelman, who hold appointments in the USC Department of Computer Science.

Although the broad effort encompasses issues of data management, governance, interoperability and more, ISI researchers are focusing on the use, promotion and enhancement of scientific workflows in earth sciences.

“EarthCube is a groundbreaking NSF program,” said Tim Killeen, assistant director for the foundation’s geosciences directorate. “It represents a dynamic new way to access, share and use data of all types to accelerate and transform research for understanding our planet.

“We are asking experts from all sectors — industry, academia, government and non-U.S. institutions — to form collaborations and tell us what research topics they think are most important. Their enthusiastic and energetic response has resulted in a synergy of exhilarating and novel ideas.”

The group, which includes computer scientists, earth scientists and cyberinfrastructure providers, has met via conference calls, as well as virtual and in-person meetings to discuss the role of scientific technologies in earth sciences both now and in the next decade.

A workflow, as described by the group, “is a series of connected steps employed to accomplish some overall goal. Almost all geoscientists employ some kind of workflow in their work while processing data from a sensor, cataloging data from the field, visualizing data or analyzing output from a numerical model.”

As research has become more intensive, the group noted, informal, seat-of-the-pants workflows have become increasingly dysfunctional.

A formal discipline for workflows has emerged, with research by Deelman and Gil playing a key role in creating and building the paradigm, as well as providing the tools needed to support workflow-based computing.

At USC, Deelman has worked with the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) on developing tools and techniques to support large-scale earthquake simulations. An example of one SCEC application is CyberShake, which generates seismic hazard maps of the Southern California area.

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