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A Progressive Story about the Integration of Information Management and Site Science

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Fall 2011

Ted L Gragson (LPI, CWT)

This contribution to DataBits represents my reflections on the integration of Information Management and Site Science within the LTER. It is not, I stress, about the technical means for achieving integration. Rather it builds on the premise that Information Management and Site Science are both at their core about people. In Site Science, people are the ones who generate, test, and evaluate hypotheses in building and expanding theory. In Information Management, people help other people effectively use imperfect technology to achieve their objectives. It is not always clear we understand this truth in the LTER.

This article is a progressive story that involves real and fictional characters. These characters help me illustrate my point and why it matters as the LTER strives to integrate Information Management and Site Science. I don't pretend to offer a roadmap for how to achieve integration, but instead merely comment on practices in relation to success.

Steve Jobs, who it is fair to say was known around the world, died on October 5, 2011. Three days later, on October 8, Dennis Ritchie, who was more likely known by only a select few around the world, also died. The accomplishments of these two very different computer giants have had inordinate influence far beyond the LTER, but offer important insights to current Network undertakings. Let us first consider Ritchie.

At the end of the 1960s Ritchie developed the general-purpose programming language C. In creating C, he gave birth to the concept of open systems in which a program written on one platform could easily be transferred to another platform. In the long run, C made it possible to port the UNIX operating system, which Ritchie co-developed with Ken Thompson, to any kind of computer. Now UNIX undergirds the modern digital world. Among other things, it is the foundation for Linux, Mac-OS, the Internet and most mobile devices.

Ritchie's fundamental contribution, however, was to the human dimension of technology. C made it possible for a programmer to have nearly universal skills across technology platforms by learning one operating system, one set of tools, and one language. That you have the necessary skill to develop for and use any computer terminal or cell phone, irrespective of the manufacturer, is a direct consequence of Ritchie creating the C programming language. Ritchie's focus was on the person, not the technology as evident in his statement "It's not the actual programming that's interesting. It is what you can accomplish with the end results that are important" (Investor's Business Daily Jan 27, 2003).

Jobs is a person about whom individuals from nearly every professional or use sector imaginable have opinions as to his contributions. Most significant to this story, however, is the fact that Jobs was not an engineer and that he was obsessed with making advanced technology simple to use. Starting with the groundwork he and Steve Wosniak laid for Apple in the early 1970s, Jobs can be credited with transforming technology to adapt to the people who use it – rather than forcing people to adapt to the technology. There may be legitimate concerns about Apple availing itself of reasonable restrictive power and extending it to unreasonable levels (Orland 2010) just like there are concerns about certain advantages claimed for the development cycle of Open Source Software (Bezroukov 1999). The point though is that Jobs was a principal architect of the shift from personal to personalized computing, which is foundational to democratizing technology.

In a democracy, the electoral system should enable every adult citizen to have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. The vote, in combination with the structure of the executive and the vertical distribution of power, are the means for translating individual wishes into a collective choice. The challenge in all such situations is to achieve governmental coherence and stability, representational legitimacy, a capacity to manage conflict, and an overall system responsive to internal and external influence (Diamond & Plattner 2006).

The nature of democracy and the accomplishments of individuals such as Jobs and Ritchie matter as we move irrevocably toward what is described as the new vision for LTER research. This vision seeks to understand human-natural systems by inextricably linking people and technologies in the context of cyberinfrastructure to allow collaborative activities and advance technological solutions (Brunt et al. 2007). The vision as expressed on paper is good, but the future is always unknown and we must retain the ability to make strategic adjustments in the short term that will help ensure we arrive in the future we are seeking, rather than one we did not anticipate.

Charlie, in Flowers for Algernon (1966), provides a warning. He increased his intelligence and understanding of the world through technology, but he did so at the expense of the relationships with the people around him. In the end, he regressed, alone, into mental disability.

The report by Atkins et al. (2003) is very clear about the vast research opportunities created by cyberinfrastructure. However, it also clearly lists many dangers including the failure to understand technological futures, the failure to recognize social and cultural barriers, the lack of appropriate organizational structures, and technological balkanization (rather than interoperability) among disciplines. Technology can be seductive, as illustrated by an image that circulated widely in the days leading up to the establishment of the National Environmental Observatory Network (NEON). Sitting cross-legged on the ground at the center of a heavily instrumented three-dimensional patch of land perhaps 100 m3 in volume was a young woman holding a laptop who appears to be a Native American. It was never clear what message the image was meant to convey, but the woman was very alone with her technology. IM is about people because we must ultimately enable individual users to effectively use imperfect technology to achieve their objectives. To fail at this task is to fail at the integration of Information Management and Site Science.

Succeeding at this task begins by actively listening to what someone is saying or trying to convey - or actively observing someone peck their way through a workflow. Active listening requires nice, smart, adaptable people willing to enable users to reach their objectives. When we speak of "what scientists can do", "what technicians can do" or "what information managers can do" we are no longer listening, we are formulating a plan for connecting things to each other. In short, we are in the process of building the wiring diagram for a computer network. In Green Eggs and Ham (1960), Sam-I-Am convinces the unnamed character in Dr. Seuss' book to try what he has refused to try 72 times before. Unlike Ritchie and Jobs who focused on adapting the technology to the user, Sam-I-Am forces the user to adapt to the technology.

The LTER Network Office (LNO) gives the impression it views each LTER site as simply a node within the Network. In reality, each site is itself a network such that the collective of sites is more properly a federated network of sites. One could say the LTER is a "network of networks", but that term seems to be reserved for discussing how LTER relates to GLEON, NEON, CZO, etc. Whatever we may call the LTER, it is crucial that we truly understand the practices of Information Management and Site Science before normatively moving forward with a plan for integrating the two.

Baker and Chandler (2008) refer to the complex co-evolving system comprised of interdependent people, practices, values and technologies in a particular local environment as an "ecology of information." In control theory, a dynamic system is controllable if it can be driven from any initial state to any desired final state within finite time (Liu et al. 2011). Our ability to control a system is generally taken as ultimate proof that we understand it, as demonstrated when we use a phone, drive a car, or synchronize a communication network. Data pipelines in a linear, point-to-point computer network benefit from economies-of-scale that are not found in an ecology of information characterized by the complexities-of-scale associated with reconciling the heterogeneous data, collaborative effort, and disciplinary semantics needed to understand human-natural systems. While control theory is well developed mathematically, there is much we don't know about controlling complex natural, human, and socio-technical systems. This is true whether we are referring to those in the world we seek to understand or those we create and seek to direct to a final goal.

Sites must deal everyday with information access and availability issues - some are under autonomous control of sites (e.g., buy more computers, build a better interface) while others are a direct consequence of the institution in which they find themselves embedded (e.g., a university’s broadband infrastructure or changing network security policies). Either way, sites alone and sometimes together contend with best serving and enabling all users to reach their objectives - scientists, technicians, students, administrators, or users from elsewhere. LNO from its vantage point at the center of this federation has the opportunity to assist with interoperability and by leadership and commitment provide an efficient computation and communication infrastructure that democratizes the capital produced by "doing science" across the federated network of sites.

However, in line with the views expressed by Ritchie, the solution is not the objective - it is what we can accomplish with the end results that are important. Sites understand how brittle monolithic solutions are. This is because data, workflows, and user experience are not abstract concepts that merely need to be wired together properly.

When we fail at the site level to break solutions into their component tiers, we risk perpetuating the view that Information Management is nothing more than good technical design and Science nothing more than good experimental design. All those activities lying between data and users subsumed under "workflows" require partnerships between communities that are information aware and cognizant of both the epistemological and ontological issues associated with interdisciplinary research (Baker and Chandler 2008). This requires information managers and scientists making and honoring commitments because they are not merely plumbers, they are partners in fulfilling site-level objectives as they relate to the Five NSF Evaluation Criteria they will be judged on at mid-term reviews and renewals.

Pogo the Possum once remarked, "We have met the enemy and he is us." In keeping with the history of Walter Kelly's character and the present story, Pogo meant that each individual is responsible for their involvement in democratizing the nation state they belong to or the LTER small-world in which they participate. Sam-I-Am offers one way forward and Pogo another. Sensitivity to the long-term depends on procedures, mechanisms, and strategies that are continually articulated, responsively designed, and thoughtfully deployed through recurrent balancing, aligning, and negotiation between all parties vested in the objective (Karasti et al. 2006). A futuristic vision of a perfect technical solution for integrating Information Management and Site Science is nothing compared to being able to trust the advice of information managers and site scientists, or be assured they will honor their commitments both in the short-term and the long-term. This is because at its core, Information Management and Site Science are about people, and technologies while necessary, will never be sufficient.

Atkins, Daniel E., Kelvin K. Droegemeier, Stuart I. Feldman, Hector Garcia-Molina, Michael L. Klein, David G. Messerschmitt, Paul Messina, Jeremiah P. Ostriker, and Margaret H. Wright. 2003. Revolutionalizing Science and Engineering Through Cyberinfrastructre: Report of the National Science Foundation Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation.

Baker, Karen S. and Cynthia L. Chandler. (2008). Enabling long-term oceanographic research: Changing data practices, information management strategies and informatics. Deep Sea Research II 55: 2132-2142. (doi: 10.1016/j.dsr2.2008.05.009).

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Coleman, Murray. 2003. Ritchie's Code? Improvement; Aim High: Unix co-creator's perseverance changed the language of computers. Investor's Business Daily January 27, A04.

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