Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Data Management Platform for Supporting Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships in Citizen Science

A recent publication by the General Administration Office (GAO) (Open Innovation Practice to Engage Citizens and Effectively Implement Federal Initiatives) sends an important message to Citizen Science (CS) organizations: public agencies will soon be knocking at your door, seeking to partner up with your organization, motivated by the need to achieve greater impact by enlisting CS enthusiasm, knowledge and resources.

Such partnering opportunities face significant challenges, driven by differences inorganizational cultures, both technical (e.g., reaching agreements on protocols) and administrative (e.g., project scheduling and reporting). Assuming that a common vision and an action plan are in place would leave the protagonists with worrying about the tools that would make the partnership work. Since the most valuable outcome of the partnership is data (and the knowledge that comes with it), it is obvious that a system for managing data is key for success.  To address this challenge, we at myObservatory offer a solution that combines the myObservatory Environmental Information Management System (EIMS) with an Enterprise Manager (EM), or in short myO/EM.

The vision that guided us at myObservatory (myObservatory.org) in developing myO/EM led to this outcome:  
(1) myO/EM allows the partners to pursue a well-defined set of common-core, coordinated activities, and at the same time, and in addition, allow each of the partners to pursue their particular agenda.  
(2) myO/EM maintains the highest professional standards in all aspects of the data acquisition process, including field data acquisition, documentation and quality assurance, reporting, integrity of the data base and compliance with data management requirements set by relevant public agencies.

myObservatory is documented extensively at myobservatory.org. So I will focus here more on the EM component. myO/EM is designed to face the challenges of a multi-stakeholder collaboration by supporting common-core activities while at the same time enabling each of the partners to pursue their own programs. Using the EM component, the group coordinator can manage projects and members; disseminate instructional material and guidelines; assimilate authorized data from the common core areas and analyze it using statistical and graphical tools; set standards for all common activities starting from field methods all the way to data labeling; create and share forms; monitor compliance of partners with set project guidelines; devise and implement quality assurance measures; generate reports; analyze trends and set alerts; and manage compliance with data management guidelines that could be mandated by funded projects.

myO/EM controls who can do what and when with any subset of the data following user-provided guidelines. It queries questionable data entries. It maintains the integrity of the database (including chain of custody, keeping records of edits and reversing unwarranted changes. And it also makes sure that data does not go out the door as people come and go. It maintains professional backups.

Quality assurance (QA) is at the heart of any project, and particularly so when facing a broad diversity in user skills. There are several types of errors that we cover in myO/EM: grammatical errors, physical plausibility errors, and out of range errors.  Grammatical errors mean, for example, writing 1.a3 instead of 1.03. QA means catching this error and alerting the parties entering the data and those managing it. Errors in physical plausibility means entering values outside of the range of acceptable values for a certain parameter. This could mean, for example, entering 17 for pH or a negative value for rainfall. Identifying data that’s out of range means identifying trends in data and detecting data entries that could be potentially, out of range, but could also be real. When you have multiple organizations involved, a trickle of data entry errors could become an avalanche, so it must be controlled at the source. Questionable data entries must be identified at the source. The myO/EM platform has built-in automated QA analytical tools that would flag questionable data as soon as it is entered. This has significant cost savings: you do not want an army of data checkers poring over data the days before a major report is due, scrambling to come up with corrections.   

myO/EM assists users with implementing new functionality that could be used by the entire community of partners. This could include, for example, selecting technological solutions (on both the software and hardware sides). Technologies, whether developed in-house or imported, could be managed through myO/EM. A technology platform that is commonly used opens the door for negotiating favorable arrangements with external suppliers, anywhere from purchasing sensors to developing solutions for managing legacy data.  

In addition to supporting the common-core activities, the myO/EM tools mentioned above are also available to support the partners’ independent activities residing outside of the common core. For example, there could be a set of forms that could be used by all partners in support of common-core activities, and there could be others that are owned and used by any subset of the partners, one or more, with or without sharing. The independent and common-core work areas are firewalled.
Let us not forget what motivates such partnership: it is the large-scale data acquisition, and this means mobility and diversity of data acquisition modes. myO/EM supports a variety of data entry modes: manually, by sensors, using mobile devices, data files (spreadsheets, pictures, documents) uploads and direct lab feeds.

Finally, there is the issue of customization. No two projects are the same. There is always a need to customize the EIMS for the particular needs of a project. And that could easily be done with myO/EM.  

To summarize, myO/EM is a hybrid information management system that allows the partners to work together in the common core and separately and independently outside of the common core.
myO/EM is now available. Visit our site (myobservatory.org) or send me a note (yoram.rubin@webh2o.net). And, as a reminder, the single organization version of myObservatory is available for free for any non-profit CS. You can sign up on our website.