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Africa: International Science Council to Revamp World Data Centers

For more than 50 years, the International Council for Science (ICSU) has had world data centers — open, nonpolitical repositories of data for scientists in every country.

Now, the ICSU is replacing the centers with a leading-edge World Data System (WDS) whose scope and technologies are evolving but whose policy of nondiscriminatory access to science remains a priority.

The ICSU, founded in 1931 as the International Council of Scientific Unions, is a nongovernmental organization with a global membership of 114 scientific bodies representing 134 countries and 29 international scientific unions. It was formed to provide a mechanism for international exchange of data in all disciplines related to the Earth and its environment and the sun.

In 1957, ICSU coordinated planning for the large-scale International Geophysical Year, a 17-month event intended to allow scientists from around the world to take part in coordinated observations of geophysical phenomena. ICSU established the world data centers to capture the solar, geophysical and environmental data arising from the event and developed data-management plans for each discipline. The centers were a success and became a permanent forum for exchanging data.

The original system included 27 data centers distributed among government and academic institutions in the United States, Europe, the then Soviet Union and Japan.

At the time — the height of the Cold War — the data centers gave scientists in the politically polarized United States and Soviet Union a way to freely exchange data and improve each other’s global databases, said David Clark, a visiting scientist with the U.S. National Geophysical Data Center in Colorado, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“It was better for science,” he told, “and transcended politics.”

By 2008, when ICSU members agreed to upgrade the aging centers with the new WDS, the 50 world data centers in 12 countries had holdings that included a range of solar, geophysical, environmental and human-dimensions data — data related to the interwoven system of human activities and natural processes.

“When the first world data centers were established, the main goal was to facilitate the continued exchange of scientific data for research and educational purposes between East and West. That is no longer an issue,” said Bernard Minster, professor of geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and incoming chairman of the ICSU World Data System Scientific Committee.

“The issue looming today,” he said, “is to create and sustain exchange of scientific data between North and South,” meaning between developed and developing countries.


Data — which ICSU characterizes as “the raw material of scientific understanding” — are gathered systematically night and day by scientists, computer networks, and terrestrial, oceanic, airborne and space-based instruments around the globe.

Geologists set up a device on Mount St. Helens in 2004 that monitors the ground for movement and sends data to scientists by satellite.

Data include digital observations, scientific monitoring, data from sensors and sensor webs, metadata (data about data), computer model output and scenarios, qualitative or observed behavioral data, visualizations, statistical data and historical data.

“Progress in science depends heavily on the worldwide exchange of ideas, information, data, materials and people,” former ICSU presidents Goverdhan Mehta and Jane Lubchenco — now NOAA administrator — wrote in Science magazine in 2004.

Advancing information and communication technologies have produced an explosion in data volume and diversity and increased the need for scientific datasets to be properly identified, assessed for quality, tracked and held to defined standards.


An ICSU Strategic Coordinating Committee for Information and Data, with members from around the world, has three years to consider how best to coordinate ICSU data activities, including the WDS, incorporating the newest information and communication technologies, international partnerships and innovative funding mechanisms.

The WDS will incorporate some or all of the world data centers’ holdings and those of the Federation of Astronomical and Geophysical Data Analysis Services, and will have closer links to the ICSU Committee on Data for Science and Technology, called CODATA.

Members of the new coordinating committee are building partnerships with institutions and organizations around the globe that collect massive amounts of data.

These include the World Meteorological Organization, the European Space Agency, NOAA, NASA and the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, an effort that integrates data from the Earth-observing networks of surface-based, airborne and space-based monitoring instruments.

“It doesn’t make sense to have a system without having it be interoperable with or part of other data systems,” Clark said. “That’s another challenge of the scientific committee — to determine how that [integration] would work.”

A new, integrated World Data Center for Geoinformatics and Sustainable Development was recently established in Kiev, Ukraine, led by academician and WDS Science Committee member Michael Zgurovzky, strengthening the Russian-Ukrainian WDS segment.

Two pilot projects are under way, Minster said. One involves a portal for oceanographic data and will connect multiple oceanography data centers by high-bandwidth networks. The project is led by Michael Diepenbrock at the University of Bremen in Germany.

A second pilot project with the National Research Foundation in Pretoria, South Africa, aims to develop a new World Data Center for Biodiversity and Human Health.

More information about the International Council for Science is available at the organization’s Web site.

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