In a world where everything seems to be connected – information, technology, viruses – it only makes sense that geological data should be the same.
The reality, however, is different. Geological data collected by individuals, companies and academic institutions across the world over hundreds of years is scattered across the globe and stored in different formats.
“At the moment geoscience is really held back in many areas because we haven’t managed to set data free. It’s still in isolated databases, or even worse, in analogue form,” said Michael Stephenson, AAPG member and executive chief scientist at the British Geological Survey.
Setting Data Free
Stephenson is part of a group of scientists spanning three dozen countries who are working to consolidate worldwide data into a searchable platform, Deep-time Digital Earth, described by some as a “geological Google.”
DDE leverages the work of established organizations and universities who are collaborating on new projects to unify existing data and maps. One of the most important projects is a platform that allows existing databases to “talk” to each other.
The initiative was sanctioned by the International Union of Geological Sciences in 2018 and developed in cooperation with national geological surveys, professional associations, academic institutions and scientists around the world.
DDE’s mission and vision are to “harmonize global deep-time digital Earth data and share global geoscience knowledge” and to “transform Earth science” through a fully interoperable, FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) network of databases and data that benefit all of geoscience.
DDE prioritizes projects that synthesize global Big Data and Big Science to tackle Earth-related challenges, including water and energy resources.
Stephenson, who serves as chair of the DDE Governing Council, says geoscientists can learn from other scientific disciplines that use technology to process and synthesize data.
“We need to be able to operate like the astronomers, physicists and genomics people regularly using data in big chunks and applying artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques,” he said.
“We all stand to gain in making further fundamental discoveries in geoscience by bringing data together and setting it free – in the same way that physicists and astronomers have.”
The Digital Revolution
Chengshan Wang, DDE executive committee chair and professor and head of the Research Centre for Tibetan Plateau Geology at China University of Geosciences in Beijing, said the world today is witnessing a digital revolution that will change history.
“The emergence of Big Data has brought brand new goals, paths and technologies. We are able to use data to demonstrate the four-billion-year evolution and history of the Earth visually and using other people-friendly approaches,” he said. “That will raise the level of human cognition of planetary processes to an unprecedented level, just like what the photo of (a) black hole synthesized by computer for the first time recently did for our interest in cosmology.”
Big Science and Big Plans
Wang became interested in data as a postgraduate student in 1986 while translating materials for the global sedimentary geology program, which he described as first contact with an “international big science” program.
“I was shocked by (the program’s) nature of science and internationalism. It was at that time I started to desire to involve in a similar program on my own, but we did not have the ability to do so at that time,” he said.
Three decades later, in August 2018, Wang met the IUGS officials at the closing ceremony of a continental drilling project of Songliao Basin.
“In talking with the president and past president, I learned that IUGS was planning a series of international big science plans, and the selection criterion had been decided,” he said. “This coincided with my idea, so I discussed the possibility of DDE becoming the first big science initiative,” he said.
Wang’s team met with and IUGS officials from China, Germany and the United Kingdom that same month. They submitted a proposal in November and IUGS approved it in December.
In February 2019, 12 founding members, including AAPG, signed the DDE Accord and officially launched the program. The DDE kickoff meeting in Beijing convened 254 scientists from 24 countries and representatives from 41 national geological surveys, including BGS.
“BGS joined because it wants to be part of important networks and programs, and because ultimately all geological surveys want to use their data better,” said Stephenson, who attended the kickoff.
Stephenson, who started his career as a schoolteacher, said his interest in data started during his tenure overseeing science and technology at BGS.
“Being at a high level in an organization with a huge amount of geological data made me very excited by the possibilities of new uses for data and new scientific discoveries that could come from using AI and ML techniques on geological data,” he said.
In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill, but DDE continued to move forward. Despite travel restrictions and communications challenges, the program grew to include six additional founding members, 26 working and task groups, and five research projects.
DDE also received support for a Research Center of Excellence in Suzhou, China and a Secretariat with staff members in Suzhou and Oklahoma.
Expanding the Scope
Secretariat personnel report to Natarajan Ishwaran, a Sri Lankan native and zoologist, who joined DDE as international relations officer in October 2021.
In addition to his work with the Secretariat, Ishwaran assists DDE governing bodies and seeks support for DDE from private sector entities and international organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Ishwaran’s interest in data started with measuring forest cover change while researching Asian elephant habitats in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. He later spent 26 years working on programs for natural heritage and conservation areas in UNESCO.
In 2012, he started working in China with international teams who used satellite data to address heritage, environment and sustainable development concerns. His work helping Chinese scientists manage big-data and collaborate with global partners prepared him well for his role at DDE.
Ishwaran said his background in environmental sciences complements the skills held by his colleagues, most of whom are trained in technology and computer science.
“One thing I have learned from my experience so far is that those who are focused on technology-generated data and technology-aided analyses of data often do not have adequate background in the other sciences, for example in ecology, geology, land use history and changes,” he said.
“Some of the research solely driven by engineering, computer sciences and other technology-affiliated fields on global issues like climate change or biodiversity don’t always pose the most pertinent research questions that their technological expertise could address and answer,” he added.
From the beginning, DDE has aimed to bring geoscientists and data scientists together – an approach Ishwaran hopes can help to provide tangible solutions to problems related to material and energy transformation needed for a move to a low-carbon era.
“In this process, attempting to apply machine learning, AI and other technologies to deep-time data may even – hopefully – trigger innovations in the use and applications of these technologies,” he said.
Understanding Deep-Time and Preparing for the Future
Ishwaran described “deep-time” as a time horizon that exists beyond individual and generational lifespans and exceeds the human understanding of documented facts about human history and evolution.
“In the past, imagination of deep-time was expressed in myths and legends,” he said, “But geology gives data-driven meaning and visualization options to Earth’s history, including localized spaces, species currently in danger of extinction and the vast period of time when humanity was not part of the planetary equation,” he said.
“The challenge that DDE has taken up is to show that data and knowledge from the deep-time history of places and life can provide insight into how we think about the future and how we can manage our resources for the benefit of future generations,” he added.
For Ishwaran, understanding data is the first step to both understanding and protecting the planet.
“Without data – observations and measurements recorded and reported in a systematic and preferably standardized way – scientific research will not advance too much,” he said.
“The fact that the availability of data now exceeds human computational capabilities requires innovative combinations of human and machine intelligence in a new scientific frontier to explore and track. It is very important that investigations, studies, discussions, debates in this frontier be supported and encouraged by all those with international and planetary interests.”
Wang said that DDE will enable researchers to use images and data to create a 3-D model of the Earth and its history.
“The space axis will show Earth’s layered structure and dynamic trajectory. The time axis will show the evolution track of the earth for more than four billion years, from the earliest known and measurable time to what Earth looks like today,” he said.
A Virtual Open Kitchen
Wang currently serves as principal investigator of DDE’s Chinese group and devotes at least 80 percent of his time to DDE work.
In addition to increasing understanding of Earth’s history, Wang said he hopes DDE will help to create a digital infrastructure for basic scientific research in the global geoscience community.
He described DDE as a virtual “open kitchen,” where all scientists are welcomed to “cook” with their own creativity and imagination.
“Data will be the ingredients, and the technology/engine developed by DDE will be cookers,” he said.
Wang noted that the aforementioned changes will happen through collective work and collaboration across borders and disciplines.
“The research paradigm of Earth science will be transformed from the home workshop of scientists to collective work; from the individual work of scientists globally to the ‘no-border international cooperation’; from individual progress of individual disciplines, including geology, geography, climatology, ecology, etc., to the overall progress of interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge,” he said.
He noted that, just as Big Data transformed personal computing and everyday life, DDE will bring new technologies to Earth sciences and to the world at large.
“Without Big Data, we would not have cloud computing, super-computing or AI with us, let alone the whole DDE project,” he said. “Likewise, DDE will be expected to hasten the birth of new technologies, such as climate disaster forecasting, earthquake warning systems, ecological disaster prediction, and so on,” he said.
Science and International Cooperation
Ishwaran said that his career with international organizations has shown him that science can unite people otherwise divided by political or ideological boundaries.
“I believe science can bring together people to draw inspiration from data, information and knowledge and facilitate collaboration to benefit people and the planet. This can happen even between countries that have tense relations at the political and diplomatic arenas,” he said.
He described working for UNESCO during the final years of the Cold War and watching scientists from the United States, western Europe and allies collaborate with their counterparts from the Soviet Union and its allies on important global scientific problems.
“I think DDE has the potential to bring together scientists from all parts of the world – some of which appear to be entering a new phase of geopolitical tensions – to promote international cooperation in geo-data sciences to address critical resource use and management trends that need transformation during the current century,” he said.
The Quest for Open Access
The transformation is a gradual process, particularly in countries like China, where access to data is more limited than in Western countries.
Wang said that while social scientists in China have harnessed the power of big data, Earth scientists have tended to lag behind. He noted that, while researchers have used Big Data to study history (rebuilding the ancient silk road), economy (predicting poverty), and even culture and literature, the field of geoscience has not always followed suit.
“As far as geoscience goes, conventional research paradigm was widely used before the appearance of DDE,” he said, adding that he hopes the program will enable more geoscientists to realize the importance of data, especially Big Data.
Wang sees DDE as a tool to help China achieve open science – a goal established by UNESCO and embraced by DDE.
“In terms of basic scientific research, the digital revolution is the first step towards open access data, and its ultimate goal is actually to promote the realization of open science. If the data cannot be accessed openly, then there is no way we can reach the FAIR principle, let alone the realization of digital revolution,” he said.
Having DDE’s Secretariat and first Research Centre of Excellence in Suzhou is an important first step.
“DDE is like an infant for both Chinese and international scientists, and we will do our best for its growth, Wang said,” “We plan to establish a fair management system with great international influence and great authority.”
Wang said DDE already is helping China catch up to other countries’ open access data policies.
“Generally speaking, Western countries are more advanced in the development of open access data, and China is lagging behind to some extent,” he said. “However, driven by DDE, the first country node in China will go online before the end of this year.”
When the center opens in late 2021, large amounts of geological data from China will be made public to the world for geoscientists to share globally.
“In this way, the realization of open access data in China will take a gratifying and important leap in the near future,” Wang said.
The Way Forward
The program’s growth is not isolated to China, however. With 19 working groups and seven task groups, DDE plans to launch a series of major research activities in future and open Research Centers of Excellence. The team has identified candidate centers in the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia, and discussions are ongoing. They plan to explore additional regions and countries for RCEs within the next three years.
The DDE team is recruiting now for an executive director of the Suzhou RCE and postdoctoral researchers to work at the first RCE in Suzhou and hopes to begin recruitment for other centers in 2022.
“We welcome all scientists/young scientists who are interested in DDE to join us,” Wang said, “This is the best era for studying the data science. Do not let this era down.”
Ishwaran said that working for DDE is a smart choice for students and young professionals interested in careers in data.
“Given that young people have a natural attraction to gaming and other digital media I would encourage them to explore careers where they would work with geosciences data. The network of research centers that DDE intends to create opportunities for young post-doctoral candidates to apply for fellowships for working with teams of geo and data scientists,” he said.
The team invites institutions throughout the world to contribute to DDE initiatives, both within their disciplinary interests, like petroleum geology or mineralogy, or by launching new initiatives in areas of mutual interest.
Stephenson said that DDE is interested in bringing in new institutional members, particularly from Latin America and Africa. He noted that participating in the program provides useful information both to contributors and to the community at large.
“All aspects of geoscience will benefit – from blue sky scientists, to applied scientists trying to understand CCUS, groundwater in Africa, hydrogen storage etc.,” he said.
Ishwaran agreed, adding that DDE is developing several projects linking geoscience and society, including data-driven initiatives contributing to United Nations Decades on Sustainable Energy for All (2014-24) and Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-30).
“The benefits will, in due course, reach public policy professionals, industry and the business community and even the general public,” he said.
While the “geological Google” is not ready yet, researchers are working to integrate information into a DDE Web which will serve as the principal platform for information dissemination and communications.
Ishwaran said he hopes that an updated version of the current DDE Web will be ready by September 2021. Until then, anyone seeking information should consult the pages of the Working and Task Groups as well as the Secretariat staff who are ready to assist in any way possible.
To learn more about DDE, including partnership and job opportunities, visit ddeworld.org.