Skip to Content

Understanding the True Cost of LTER Information Management

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version
Fall 2013

Philip Tarrant (CAP)


Information management (IM), as a function within the LTER network, is undergoing significant change. Early implementation of the PASTA framework within the Network Information System (NIS), has required site Information Managers to reevaluate their data catalogs in light of the quality standards necessary for successful data ingestion. This activity, combined with centralized information management workshops at the 2012 All Scientists’ Meeting, and possible future changes in LTER network operations, mean that different information management models have become a regular discussion topic. However, in order for us to have an informed debate on this subject, we should take the time to try and understand the true cost of information management as it exists today.

The current models for site information management vary significantly dependent on how the LTER site is supported by its host institution. Some sites operate as stand-alone research stations. Other sites are heavily integrated within their host institution. Yet others are effectively multi-agency collaborations that serve a diverse set of “masters”. This diversity of organizations is likely to lead to a variety of service delivery models and it is unlikely that a “one size fits all” formula would accurately estimate costs for the entire network. Therefore, it makes sense for each site to assess its own IM costs within the context of how the site is organized.

The Central Arizona-Phoenix LTER site is hosted by the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. The Institute’s Informatics and Technology team provides the information management services for this site as part of a larger portfolio of technology services. As CAP LTER is by far the team’s largest customer, I felt it was important to understand how the support provided by the team related to the contribution made by the project. Consequently, I set out to estimate the cost of support operations in terms of personnel, hardware and software.

Information management cost estimator

IM cost estimator - example worksheet

To make this calculation I created a worksheet to estimate costs and then proportion those costs between the project and the Institute. This worksheet is an MS Excel spreadsheet with embedded formulas that contains sub-sections for:

  • Desktop/laptop computers
  • Printers/copiers
  • Servers and storage
  • Specialist software products
  • Education and travel
  • Web support
  • IM related personnel
  • Supplementary personnel

While these sections were all relevant for CAP LTER, they would not all be completed at sites where the Information Manager wears several hats (e.g. database management and web site maintenance). The worksheet also requires a number of assumptions to be made. Although some of these assumptions are vague (which increases the error range), it still allows for a reasonable estimate to be produced.

The assumptions used for the CAP LTER assessment were:

Hardware (PCs, servers, printers, etc.)

If the equipment is only partly utilized for LTER activities it should be apportioned. Value should be amortized over 4 years.


Per seat license costs are difficult to estimate. License costs vary with volume and many suppliers will only provide quotes on requests. Value should be considered as that the LTER site could negotiate as an individual entity rather than the volume discount available to the institution.

IM personnel

Salary contribution should be the effort required to support LTER IM activities only. This number will be (% of time spent on IM activities) x (salary + benefits). The dollar amount of support that is provided by the LTER site and the institution can then be apportioned.


After completing the worksheet I determined that the CAP LTER project contributes approximately 22% towards the cost of services and support received. While this contribution may appear low, it can actually be considered as good business for the Institute. This is primarily because, as our largest customer, the LTER project can be used as a development platform for solving Institute business problems, i.e. providing data management solutions for CAP LTER allows me to solve the problem for my other customers. To date, this has proven to be a very successful formula.

Interestingly, CWT also completed a cost assessment using the same worksheet. The Information Manager concluded that the project contributed ~89% of the cost of IM support; a very different result to CAP. However, it should be noted that information management does not exist in a vacuum and LTER projects receive their institutional support in a variety of ways. Differences in the proportion of IM support received from a host institution should always be viewed in the broader context of the complete LTER site operation. 

This symbiotic relationship between LTER sites and their host institutions creates an interesting dilemma with respect to information management, as we go forward. Any dialog we have with respect to possible changes in the LTER information management model should seek to understand the net dollar benefit received by the LTER network through these close institutional associations. In addition to this benefit we should ensure we appreciate the actual cost of alternative service delivery methods. If we approach this topic with due diligence we are less likely to make choices that ultimately prove to be more expensive than anticipated.