News and Notes

A Newsletter for Faculty and Staff of Idaho State University

June 21, 2010 — Vol. 26 No. 22

Idaho State University Researchers Create Computer Desktop To Help Researchers Worldwide Access Hydrological Data

Daniel Ames

Hydrological data – information about the movement, distribution, and quality of water throughout the United States – that may have formerly taken weeks to laboriously gather, will soon be available after a few mouse “clicks,” thanks in part to a computer desktop application being created by Idaho State University researchers.

“Ten years ago it took me about a month or more to gather basic data on Washington’s Yakima River when I was preparing to do my master’s thesis,” said Daniel P. Ames, ISU geosciences professor and Idaho State University’s 2009-10 Distinguished Researcher. “With the desktop software we’re developing at ISU, I could gather that same data in about 15 minutes. If you multiply that month saved by the hundreds of scientists using this type of data for research around the country, you’ve saved hundreds of person-years of work effort just collecting data, so researchers can get on to the real business of using that data to complete new science.”

Ames is leading a group at Idaho State University who are creating this free software, called “HydroDesktop,” in partnership with the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI). One of the goals of CUAHSI is to provide web services, tools, standards and procedures that enhance access to more and better data for hydrologic analysis. It has setup a computer network – called the Hydrologic Information System (HIS) to facilitate sharing hydrological, climate, water resources and weather information. ISU’s HydroDesktop is a key element of this national information system.

CUAHSI has more than 120 members, including major universities, private companies and government agencies. Through the HIS project, it enables the sharing of hydrological data from government agencies such as the United States Geological Service, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, as well as its members universities.

“Every government agency and research project tends to have its own website and to put out its data in its own format,” Ames noted. “To get this data, you may be required to learn 10 or 20 different systems to collect the different types of data for one place. HIS was envisioned as a way to harmonize the way people share data and make it so every agency and every researcher can share data in the same format, make it more globally accessible, and simplify the whole system so science can advance at a faster rate.”

The HIS program is about 8 years old and gradually agencies and scientists involved with hydrological research are adopting HIS protocols for storing and indexing information.

What was missing was an easier way of accessing that data, and this is where Ames and his team stepped in two years ago, supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, an NSF Idaho Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant, an EPSCoR Cyberinfrastructure grant, and an Inland Northwest Research Alliance (INRA) grant. Total funding has been about $400,000 annually the last two years and should be the same annually for the next two years.

The Idaho State University team has created the HydroDesktop software, “which is an Internet Explorer-(a popular Web browser) type of tool for accessing the HIS network,” according to Ames. HydroDesktop is an open-source desktop application that can be used to find hydrologic and climate data, download it, displaying it graphically and perform basic analyses. The data can also be exported for extended analysis in other software such as Microsoft Excel or Matlab.

The Idaho State University researchers have created a second alpha version of the HydroDesktop software, which will be tested and reviewed at the CUAHSI annual meeting in July.

“We’ll have our big release of the HydroDesktop in the fall,” Ames said.

The ISU research team consists of Ames and about six graduate students, with the number of graduate students varying from year to year. Several faculty members and student at Utah State University, University of Texas – Austin, and University of South Carolina are also contributing to the software.