Executive Summary

An objective of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment. The data needed to conduct integrated studies of natural systems are necessarily diverse and must be drawn from regions ranging from the center of the Earth to the solar surface. Acquiring these data, assuring their quality, and making them available to users is the job of the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) and its three national data centers for climate, oceanography, and geophysics. The National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) is responsible for archiving and disseminating data related to marine geology and geophysics, solid earth geophysics, and solar-terrestrial physics.

Although NOAA’s environmental objectives are broad, the agency has traditionally focused on the ocean and atmosphere, raising questions about the role of NGDC—a geophysical and solar-terrestrial center—within NOAA. At the request of NESDIS the Committee to Review NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center was established to answer the following questions:

  1. Is the NGDC mission well articulated and understood by its staff and its users?

  2. Is NGDC organized, staffed, equipped, and supported to fulfill its mission?

  3. Is NGDC appropriately aligned to support the mission, vision, strategic goals, and themes of NOAA and NESDIS?



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Executive Summary An objective of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment. The data needed to conduct integrated studies of natural systems are necessarily diverse and must be drawn from regions ranging from the center of the Earth to the solar surface. Acquiring these data, assuring their quality, and making them available to users is the job of the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) and its three national data centers for climate, oceanography, and geophysics. The National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) is responsible for archiving and disseminating data related to marine geology and geophysics, solid earth geophysics, and solar-terrestrial physics. Although NOAA’s environmental objectives are broad, the agency has traditionally focused on the ocean and atmosphere, raising questions about the role of NGDC—a geophysical and solar-terrestrial center—within NOAA. At the request of NESDIS the Committee to Review NOAA’s National Geophysical Data Center was established to answer the following questions: Is the NGDC mission well articulated and understood by its staff and its users? Is NGDC organized, staffed, equipped, and supported to fulfill its mission? Is NGDC appropriately aligned to support the mission, vision, strategic goals, and themes of NOAA and NESDIS?

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Are NGDC’s performance measures appropriate for tracking progress in achieving results and for judging center funding? How well does NGDC collect the data and information it needs to effectively conduct its activities? How effectively does NGDC measure customer satisfaction? The committee undertook the review from the perspective of the scientific user community. The following recommendations were based on analysis of background material prepared by NGDC, a site visit, discussions with NOAA managers and staff, and assessment of previous reviews of NGDC and other national data centers. NGDC AT A GLANCE NGDC was created in Boulder, Colorado, from disparate data programs within NOAA and predecessor organizations in 1965. This history is reflected in the center’s organizational structure, which is divided into four semi-autonomous divisions—marine geology and geophysics, solid earth geophysics, solar-terrestrial physics, and information services. Over the years the center’s holdings have grown and changed. For example, there is now less emphasis on seismology and more emphasis on ecosystems and natural hazards than there was at the center’s inception. The center now holds 38 terabytes of data and serves tens of thousands of users. The base funding of $4.3 million is not sufficient to cover the payroll of both the permanent and contract staff and carry out the center’s responsibilities of acquiring data from agency programs and principal investigators; ensuring that the data are properly documented and assessed for quality; disseminating data, metadata, and information products to users; and archiving them for future generations of users. Budget shortfalls are made up through reimbursable work, mostly to NOAA and other government agencies. MISSION AND VISION Over the last decade NGDC’s base funding has remained flat while the number of users and the volume of data holdings have increased exponentially. During the same interval, base funding of the other NOAA data centers has increased, suggesting that NGDC has not effectively conveyed its mission and vision to NOAA. The problem is twofold. First, NGDC’s 1   The National Geophysical and Solar-Terrestrial Data Center [a previous name for NGDC] acquires, processes, archives, analyzes, and disseminates solid Earth and marine geophysical

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formal mission statement1 is out of date and no longer fully describes the scope of the center, its connections to NOAA, or its potential for future growth. Second, the center’s vision—to be the preeminent stewards of geophysical and relevant environmental data—is not closely aligned with NOAA’s priorities, even though long-term data archival is a formal NOAA responsibility. However, NOAA’s new strategic plan for fiscal year (FY) 2003 to FY 2008 contains priorities that are more favorable to NGDC than previous strategic plans. Of particular importance is NOAA’s new priority for integrated environmental approaches, an area in which NGDC has some experience and could play an important role. Moving in this direction will require a new vision for the center, a restatement of its mission, and less emphasis on the traditional disciplinary boundaries of marine geology and geophysics, solid earth geophysics, and solar-terrestrial physics. The latter would be facilitated by reorganizing the center so that a common set of services and functions serves all NGDC disciplines. Recommendation: NOAA, NESDIS, and NGDC should jointly participate in a rearticulation of NGDC’s mission in support of NOAA’s environmental responsibilities as defined in the NOAA draft strategic plan for 2003. Recommendation: NGDC should develop an integrated approach to the stewardship of environmental data and operate in such a way that shareable services and functions (e.g., database management, software development) serve all NGDC disciplines. DATA CENTER PERFORMANCE User Interactions The purpose of any data center is to serve its users. To do this well the center must be able to identify its users and assess their satisfaction. NGDC’s users include scientists from academia, government laboratories, and the private sector, as well as the general public in the United States and abroad. More detailed information on users is not available because users now overwhelmingly use the Web to find data instead of contacting a staff member at the center. The Web site was not designed to capture much information about users, and the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 forbids     data as well as ionospheric, solar, and other space environment data; develops analytical, climatological, and descriptive products to meet user requirements; and provides facilities for World Data Center-A (Solid Earth Geophysics, Solar Terrestrial Physics, and Glaciology).

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nonrigorous user surveys, such as those that the center used to conduct. NESDIS has recently obtained Office of Management and Budget approval for a one-time user survey of its data centers, so better information on customer satisfaction is forthcoming. Finally, the center has not had an external user advisory committee since 1993. External guidance is especially important now that mechanisms for obtaining meaningful user feedback are more difficult to put in place. Recommendation: NGDC should take steps to obtain effective feedback from its users by establishing an independent external advisory group, conducting statistically valid user surveys, and making better use of its Web site to characterize users and to define their interests and level of expertise. Previous data center reviews suggest that the best data centers are integrated into the scientific community. There are many ways to increase scientific involvement with the center, including having scientific expertise among the center staff. A number of center staff have scientific credentials and publish papers about NGDC data, but the center might also consider appointing a chief scientist who would interact with all the divisions to energize the science. Links with the external scientific community could be strengthened by increasing the number of collaborative projects with outside scientists, re-establishing the scientific advisory committee, and/or populating the visiting scientist program with active scientists from outside the Boulder area. Recommendation: NGDC should improve scientific involvement of center personnel with the datasets by recruiting scientists to work with the data, establishing a vigorous program of external visiting scientists, and/or creating strong partnerships with other agencies, industry, and academia to supplement staff expertise. It is inferred from Internet domain names that a significant fraction of NGDC’s users are not scientists. Serving the educational needs of these lay users is difficult, requires specialized skills, and is given a lower priority in practice by NGDC. Indeed, NGDC’s performance measures call for only 0.25 full-time equivalents (FTEs) and associated resources to be devoted to outreach activities. However, this level of effort is significantly lower than that of other agencies and has not led to a coherent education and outreach program. Recommendation: For NGDC to have an effective education and outreach program, it should first develop a strategy that can be implemented for all disciplines, and the program should be given resources commensurate with that strategy.

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Data Collection and Distribution Through its entrepreneurial staff the center has been able to obtain many datasets of value to the community and is well positioned scientifically to acquire important new data streams in the future (e.g., geodetic data from NOAA’s network of continuously operating reference stations, solar-terrestrial elements of the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System). NGDC will have to continue working with data collection programs and with principal investigators to ensure that relevant data and metadata are obtained and archived properly. All data related to marine geology and geophysics, solid earth geophysics, and solar-terrestrial physics need not be archived at NGDC. Indeed, there are financial, scientific, and data safety reasons for having multiple archives. However, NGDC should provide prominent links to guide users to these related archives. Given that the Web is the first place most users go for data, NGDC should place high priority on putting all its digital holdings online or nearline. These steps would help NGDC become the first place users go to find geophysical data. Recommendation: NGDC should work with organizations that are sponsoring relevant data collection projects (e.g., National Ocean Partnership Program, National Science Foundation) from the outset to ensure that NGDC will receive the resulting data. It should also provide prominent links on its Web site to complementary archives. Recommendation: NGDC should continue to convert historical analog records to digital form and make all its digital holdings available online or nearline in the near future. Implementing this recommendation would enhance data availability and preservation. Staff and Facilities The staff appear to be well qualified to carry out their tasks. However, claiming budget shortfalls, NGDC has not filled vacancies, and the number of federal FTEs has declined to 51, a 50 percent decrease since 1992. As a result the balance of skills at the center has become skewed. The center has supplemented its technological expertise through grants to the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environment. It could do the same to supplement its scientific expertise. The pending retirements will permit the center to hire employees with needed skills and inject new blood into the center.

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Recommendation: NGDC should develop a strategy for recruiting and retaining staff that places a high priority on enhancing the scientific vigor of the center and ensures that key technological expertise resides on the permanent staff. NGDC’s hardware infrastructure—built on a network of Linux servers and a modern tape robotic mass storage system—has the capacity to meet the data distribution and archival needs of the center. However, the pace of data migration (10 percent per year) is slower than is generally accepted, potentially jeopardizing the safety of the data. Another concern is that the offsite backup storage facility is not located at a significant distance from Boulder. The proximity of the primary and backup storage locations creates the potential for significant data loss through natural disasters and power outages, and interruptions of data availability from loss of Internet connectivity to the Boulder area. Recommendation: NGDC should improve its data stewardship, guided by practices at other data centers, to accelerate its data migration schedule and its rate of archive transcription, and should also address the center and backup site disaster vulnerability. Performance Measures Performance measures provide a means for evaluating progress. However, many of the performance measures used by NGDC in FY 2002 have more to do with the efficient operation of a federally supported facility than with good data center performance. For example, NGDC’s current performance measures include “alternative dispute resolution” but do not include “ease of access to holdings.” With the revision of the NOAA and NESDIS strategic plans, NGDC has an opportunity to propose a new approach to defining performance measures—one that begins with determining the characteristics of a good data center (e.g., data are easily found and accessed by users) and then defines performance measures accordingly. NGDC is at a turning point. Recent and upcoming retirements at NGDC and the change of focus at NOAA present a tremendous opportunity to install new leadership and build NGDC into an integrated science center. In doing so it can take advantage of existing strengths, including a capable staff; some critically important data that are not held elsewhere; a favored location in Boulder, Colorado, which places scientific expertise at their fingertips; and experience creating integrated datasets and tools. With vision and inspired leadership NGDC can improve its effectiveness, fulfill its potential within NOAA, and more effectively contribute to pressing global concerns of understanding and managing our environment.