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Collaborating to Expand Observational Data Resources

The Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC), funded by KDI, brought together a team of space physicists, computer scientists, and behavioral scientists. Among them was Dr. Thomas Finholt, a co-principal investigator on the project and research associate professor at the School of Information at the University of Michigan. Dr. Finholt is also director of the Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work.

The KDI-funded aspect of the project picked up where a previous project, called the Upper Atmospheric Research Laboratory (UARC), had left off. According to Dr. Finholt, "UARC was an atmospheric science project whose main purpose originally was to obtain data from a remote observatory in Greenland and display it on computer screens of scientists, mostly in North America and in Western Europe. Then, over the course of that project, it became possible to bring in other kinds of instrumentation, including two European instruments in the Norwegian Arctic and instruments in the U.S. and South America."

SPARC logoIn funding SPARC, the National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted to create a collaboratory of revolutionary scope and power. The project team aimed to expand the field of view of available online instrumentation by combining observational capabilities with computational simulation capabilities. The number of real-time observational data resources that scientists could view in this collaboratory environment expanded dramatically. "At the end," says Dr. Finholt, "there was something like 390 observational resources, including global chains of magnetometers, interferometers, radars, earth orbiting resources, the Polar spacecraft, and more."

A key difference between the UARC project and SPARC was that, with SPARC, the team moved away from a very specialized software environment and started to use the computer language Java, which made the collaboratory platform more accessible to scientists all over the world.

According to Dr. Finholt, his role in SPARC was to focus "on what kinds of collaborations and collaborative practices would emerge in a setting where people were not co-located. There was a great deal of enthusiasm around these collaboratory projects and the belief that they would accelerate knowledge creation and discoveries. Although that was the hope, nobody really understood how that was going to work. So that was one of the things that we were looking at, along with using our findings to try to enhance the capabilities of the system to achieve the goal of faster discovery."

NEES logoToday, Dr. Finholt is working on an NSF-funded collaboratory for earthquake engineering simulation called the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). This project is NSF's first attempt to build a national scientific infrastructure that is intended for use in a distributed and remote fashion. NEES plans to link together some 18 brand new earthquake engineering laboratories.

Dr. Finholt says that his involvement in this work was a direct follow-on from his KDI-funded project. "Our work on UARC and then SPARC made us visible to the National Science Foundation, so at the time that they were bringing the various elements together, they brought us in as part of what they described as the ‘dream team’ to build this system for the earthquake engineers."

Another result of the KDI-funded project was that the technology that was developed in the context of SPARC became the basis for a public domain courseware environment that is currently being elaborated by the NEES project.

A third spin-off is a startup company called Arbor Networks, founded and run by scientists who were involved in the SPARC project. "Arbor Networks is one of the leading purveyors of algorithms and techniques that Internet service providers use for detecting incipient service attacks," says Dr. Finholt, "so it would have obvious value given the nature of the Internet these days." Arbor Networks grew out of the UARC and SPARC experience. "In the creation of the collaboratory we were distributing many samples of the software all over the world," says Dr. Finholt, "and that gave these guys a great test bed for looking at network performance and monitoring network characteristics across a broad base. From that, they developed these algorithms that are now being used to produce this product."

To learn more about SPARC, visit the Web site at

For more information on the NEES Consortium, visit their Web site at

To learn more about Arbor Networks, go to their Web site:

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