Software to accelerate science

In three years, the WSSI shows that software best practices can make a difference in water science.

Ask any elementary school student and they will tell you that water is a renewable resource.

Unfortunately, this “fact” comes with a few complications, like the truth that if we are not careful stewards of our water, it will run out. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), “more than 1.7 billion people live in river basins where depletion through use exceeds natural recharge.”

This trend could see two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed countries by 2025.

Understanding and sustaining water resources depends on using the best scientific modeling and software development practices, which is why RENCI has been part of the Water Science Software Institute (WSSI) planning grant for the past three years.  

The WSSI conceptualization, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), launched with the goal of developing a plan for a center that could transform the software and research cultures of the water science community.

Currently, research software code can be hard to use or incomplete, yet still be valuable to researchers. Graduate students, post-docs, and scientists write software to meet immediate needs, but there is often no formal and repeatable mechanism to ensure the software lives on once the money runs out or the original creator leaves the organization.

In addition, management and funding of research projects tends to remain separate, which often means different organizational silos address the same problem when they could be working on different problems and sharing their results and best practices.

These software and research issues in water science slow the march toward scientific progress and inhibit the ability to address the water crises. The aim of the NSF’s Software Infrastructure for Sustained Innovation (SI2) program, which funded the WSSI, is to create a software development infrastructure that easily scales from small research groups to large collaborations and results in sustainable, reusable software that will enhance productivity and accelerate innovation and discovery.

The WSSI team worked to accomplish this outcome by establishing the Open Community Engagement Process (OCEP), a model for scientific software development that accelerates scientific progress in water science by transforming the software development process and the research culture. The WSSI OCEP process makes progress by: 1) surveying the research community to determine the water science problems that are most dire; 2) training those working on the problems to create quality, sustainable code through established open source practices; and 3) ensuring that valued software and data elements are discoverable and interoperable across disparate projects, programs, centers, and communities.

To implement these best practices, the WSSI team, which includes researchers from RENCI, the Socio Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland, and the University of Illinois, organized a series of collaborations and workshops.

  • Two hackathons helped to improve the functionality of the Regional Hydro-Ecological Simulation System (RHESSys), a hydroecological modeling framework designed to simulate the combination of water, carbon, and nutrient cycling among the soils and vegetation of a watershed. The work completed at these hackathons brought RHESSys closer to use by non-experts, an ultimate goal of sustainable software work.
  • The Open Science for Synthesis Workshop offered a bi-coastal training opportunity for early career scientists. The collaboration between UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) and RENCI allowed scientists to work together for three weeks on several core water science and other environmental themes and to receive hands-on guided experience using best practices in the technical aspects that underlie successful open science and synthesis.
  • Most recently, the Open Science Codefest, also done in collaboration with NCEAS, brought together researchers from across the nation to collaborate in “unconference” style on creating more sustainable water science and other scientific software. Attendees from RENCI were able to bring their own water science ideas and concerns to the table and have the group work together to tackle those challenges.

“With the WSSI Open Community Engagement Process, we set out to show that water scientists can adopt sustainable software practices, which in turn will make them more productive scientists,” said Ray Idaszak, project manager for the WSSI and RENCI’s director of collaborative environments. “We’ve made progress in a short time and we believe that our actions and our lessons learned can serve as a blueprint for any discipline looking to improve software development practices.”

For the two-thirds of the world population that could suffer water stress in the next decade, mass adoption of these efficient practices can’t come soon enough.