What if everything that happened in the environment was immediately recorded and made available to everyone in real time?
This is the idea behind a bold 10-year research programme run by Australia’s government research agency CSIRO to build a complete digital representation of the country.
Oznome – named to echo the Human Genome Project – aims to become a “historical, current and future digital representation of everything” in the country by 2025, starting with environmental data.
“Like the Human Genome Project, Oznome is a big crazy idea that many people will say isn’t possible,” says David Lemon, a research team leader at CSIRO.
Making this happen will involve finding a way to bring together data from government agencies, researchers, private companies and citizen scientists to offer an unprecedented understanding of how all sorts of different systems connect with each other – whether that’s water, energy or agriculture, health or economics.
If CSIRO pulls it off, Oznome would, for example, allow researchers to easily track the impact of climate change or iron mining – or both – on the water supply or the economic well-being of Australia’s rural populations over time.
The plan echoes other big science initiatives in ecology such as the National Ecological Observatory Network in the US, a continental-scale system for examining ecological change.
In the long run, historical data from Oznome could be combined to make sophisticated models to predict what is likely to happen in the future.
“This is kind of the dream for any of us that work with data,” says Jeni Tennison, technical director of the UK’s Open Data Institute in London. “But it’s really, really hard to do.”
To get there, the team will need to focus on making various sources of data available and compatible. “We need to solve the problem of finding data, accessing it and making sure it’s usable and interoperable,” says Lemon.
Doing so could also lower research costs. In a typical CSIRO project, the cost of data discovery, access and preparation accounts for about 30 per cent of the time and budget, Lemon says. “Even if we could automate just half of it, our organisation could save around $75 million per year,” he adds.
In part, it’s a technical challenge: how to build a platform that allows researchers to easily search for and find data streams in a consistent and clear format, particularly when data-handling technologies are evolving so quickly.
Tennison mentions a similarly ambitious initiative by the European Union called Infrastructure for Spatial Information in the European Community (INSPIRE), which aims to make environmental data comparable across state borders. This project used XML as the data-file format when it launched in 2001. “Now, 15 years later, it looks old-fashioned. The way we deal with information has evolved,” says Tennison.
However, a bigger challenge is the cultural shift required to get scientists and other data holders to share their information.
“Many organisations with data have the view that sharing it is a cost with little benefit to the sharer,” says Lemon. Convincing them to invest upfront in a sharing system for savings in the long term is easier said than done. Some organisations also make money from selling their data, which adds a layer of licensing red tape to the bureaucracy.
CSIRO has started with “Oznome Water”, a subsection of the overall project, which is in its infancy.
“We know from past projects looking at land management, water availability, hydrological modelling, ground water and water quality that an interdisciplinary approach is key,” says project leader Jonathan Yu. “But the data infrastructure doesn’t typically exist.”
Yu and Lemon draw parallels with the Sense-T initiative that began in Tasmania five years ago, under which a sensor network and data resource are being built to create a digital view of the island state. Sensors have been placed across the island to measure real-time weather conditions, carbon dioxide levels, the health of animals and farmed fish, water reserves and energy use.
The information is being used to help industry and researchers make better decisions. In one example, moisture-detecting sensors connect to an app and keep farmers informed about irrigation strategies in the drought-stricken land.
“It’s fascinating to see what a community does with access to information in a form they can consume,” says Lemon. “To me this is a taster of what’s to come with Oznome.”