Google to bring NOAA data to new heights

Have you ever wanted to go to a Web site and get detailed information about weather patterns, ocean temperatures or rainfall averages? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is one of the federal agencies most responsible for getting scientific information out to the public, and it has chosen Google as a partner to collaborate on several research and development projects to make the data more accessible online.

The cooperative R&D agreement will enable the two organizations to collaborate for their mutual benefit and for the benefit of the public without an exchange of money. Google gets access to vast amounts of data and Earth sciences expertise, and NOAA gets access to software and visualization acumen.

“We have such vast amounts of information about the Earth’s systems, and we’re looking for better ways to get that information to an ever-increasing audience,” said Richard Spinrad, NOAA assistant administrator for research. “Google is arguably the world’s expert in handling data, particularly in large volumes.”

The agreement is not obligatory and does not bind the parties to specific projects. But it gives each party broad access to the resources of the other that are more difficult to provide on case-by-case basis, and the chance to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.

“Some may pan out and some may not,” Spinrad said. “But they are opportunities.”

One of the opportunities is visualizing data. NOAA is no stranger to visualization. Its Science on a Sphere technology, which it licenses to museums, science centers, research facilities and schools around the world, uses a computer-driven multi-projector system to realistically display scientific data about the Earth on a spherical surface. Spinrad would like to expand that capability to new datasets.

“Right now on Google Earth you can pull up data on a flat screen and see some really interesting things,” he said. “Imagine doing that on a sphere. That’s powerful stuff.”

This would be done by rendering files in the Keyhole Markup Language used by Google Earth for display in the Science on a Sphere system. This would require translating files from two-coordinate dimensions to four coordinates (the three spatial dimensions plus time). Doing this would give Google a new way to display its data and would give NOAA new datasets to use with Science on a Sphere.

A shortcoming in Google Earth is the difficulty of showing real-time data. NOAA would like to make this more efficient so that video and data from its new Okeanos Explorer exploration ship, now undergoing sea trials in the Pacific, could be displayed in Google. The ship has the latest communications technology for live, near-real-time audio, video and data transmission via satellite and Internet2 to five on-shore Exploration Command Centers that will give scientists on shore an opportunity to participate in the ship’s mission as they are needed.

“We want to be able to use Google Earth the vehicle to let school kids all around the world see what’s going on on the floor of the Indian Ocean,” Spinrad said. Doing that would require plenty of bandwidth and sophisticated handling of large data flows. “You can’t just have streaming video, you have to have some metadata and context.”

This is not the first collaboration between Google and NOAA. After Hurricane Katrina, digital aerial images of the disaster area from the National Geodetic Survey were made available within 48 hours on Google Earth, giving individuals quick access to detailed information of damage in specific areas.

“It was a wonderful mix of the NOAA mission and the ability to reach out to the public,” Spinrad said.

Spinrad was part of an advisory council that worked with Google to produce Google Ocean, launched last year to make geospatial data in the form of NOAA images, video and current data available in Google Earth.

The current agreement is a way of extending these efforts, said Alan Leonardi, NOAA’s principal investigator for the agreement. He spent a five-month fellowship at Google in 2008 and 2009. During that time, he operated as what he called the “NOAA-Google dating service,” bringing together experts from each organization to work on projects. The agreement continues and expands that relationship in a more formal manner.

Other possible areas of cooperation are compiling and improving bathymetric datasets for display and downloading, making data from the Integrated Ocean Observing System and Greenhouse Gas Monitoring System available online, and providing interactive access to marine zoning and regulatory information.

“The public is paying for it,” Spinrad said, so it should be available to the public.

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