Science you can use

Becoming the U.S. experts in applied climate data was the result of a merger that brought together climatologists and computer scientists at Oregon State University. Together they have created systems to present complex data in a way that is easy to understand.

The foundation

“It’s science you can use,” says Cherri Pancake, emeritus professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the College of Engineering.

Pancake founded the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science & Engineering (NACSE) 20 years ago to help scientists, engineers, and natural resource managers use computers and data more effectively. Pancake’s first career was in anthropology, and in her second career she applied her ethnographic research skills to computer science to become a pioneering force in the area of usability engineering.

Usability engineering is the basis of NACSE, an interdisciplinary and collaborative group that has worked on projects for science-based decision making in a broad range of areas including nanomaterials, wildfire management and wind energy. NACSE was one of the earliest groups to exploit mapping as a way of helping scientists and resource managers explore complex data, drawing on the expertise of computational geographer Dylan Keon, associate director of NACSE.

The climate connection

NACSE transformed in 2007 when they joined forces with a group of climate data specialists at Oregon State known as the PRISM Climate group, led by Chris Daly, now the chief scientist at NACSE. PRISM scientists had been gathering, mapping, and doing quality control on all the climate data in the U.S. for two decades.

What NACSE offered in the merger was an opportunity to make the data more usable by non-scientists who are making policy decisions based on climate. The result of the collaboration is that NACSE hosts the most comprehensive and broadly used climate dataset in the U.S. Users include researchers, federal and state government agencies, groups like the Weather Channel and The Nature Conservancy, and private citizens.

The data sources include over 35,000 reporting stations across the U.S. and historical information dating back to 1895. The merger provided resources to the climate group that allowed them to add historical data no other group had previously utilized, including radar data from the National Weather Service and a million and half additional weather observations hand-written on paper forms from the 19th and 20thcenturies.

Climate data for the people

Although NACSE works mostly in the background, one visible project that gardeners across the nation use is the plant hardiness map distributed by the USDA. The web version has attracted over 14 million visitors since it was first posted 4 years ago, which is more than 10,000 hits per day.

“They came to us to create an updated map because the climate is changing, and nurseries and growers depend on that information to know what plant varieties will work best in the different zones,” Pancake says.

Another visible example of their work is the PRISM web portal which is updated daily. Users can view and download climate data such as precipitation, temperature and dew point summarized for 30-year, monthly, and daily intervals, or a historical profile of weather for a specific location and time period.

Since users don’t register to access the public portal, NACSE does not specifically track who looks for what data on the portal, but they do keep an eye on downloads.

“People are downloading 7 to 8 million data sets every month, and there aren’t that many climatologists out there, so there are many other people who are interested in the data,” Pancake says.

Since users don’t register to access the public portal, NACSE does not track who is downloading data. However, there are some groups that use dedicated network access such as CoCoRaHS, a network of over 20,000 volunteers who measure and report daily precipitation all over the country.

Behind the scenes

Most of NACSE’s projects are not visible to the public because they are designed for a specific purpose and a particular group, such as natural resource managers who use the systems to monitor air pollution or understand the impact of wind turbines on wildlife populations. One of NACSE’s largest projects, with 4,500 users, is for the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which provides crop insurance to American farmers.

“I think it’s the most interesting project because it blends together three disciplines — climatology, usability engineering and geographic information science,” Pancake says.

The system can retrieve climate data for an area as small as an 800-meter square — the size of a single field. The Risk Management Agency uses NACSE data to validate insurance claims. With billions of dollars funded by taxpayers at stake, the task was critical.

“The challenge was to take real science and cast it into something that is intelligible to non-scientists but will hold up in a Federal court of law,” Pancake says.

Screenshot of RMA data outputScreenshot of the data output for the system used by the USDA’s Risk Management Agency.

Their system met the challenge, receiving rave reviews by the users and surviving the test of the courts. Insurance adjusters can quickly and easily assess whether rainfall and temperature was unusually high or low for a particular area through the user interface, and the system can also generate a text report that can be printed and used as evidence in court.

“This is not just filling in numbers in tables, this is generating English-language text that reads like a human wrote it,” Pancake says. “It was so interesting! For me, the fun is in creating something that really works for practical daily use.”

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