Public databases

by Anne Egger, Ph.D., Anthony Carpi, Ph.D.

This material is excerpted from a teaching module on the Visionlearning website, to view this material in context, please visit Data: Analysis and Interpretation.

One of the most exciting advances in science today is the development of public databases of scientific information that can be accessed and used by anyone. For example, climatic and oceanographic data, which are generally very expensive to obtain because they require large-scale operations like drilling ice cores or establishing a network of buoys across the Pacific Ocean, are shared online through several web sites run by agencies responsible for maintaining and distributing that data, such as the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center run by the U.S. Department of Energy (see Research links). Anyone can download that data to conduct their own analyses and make interpretations. Likewise, the Human Genome Project has a searchable database of the human genome, where researchers can both upload and download their data (see Research links). The number of these widely available datasets has grown to the point where the National Institute of Standards and Technology actually maintains a database of databases. Some organizations require their participants to make their data publicly available, such as the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS): the instrumentation branch of IRIS provides support for researchers by offering seismic instrumentation, equipment maintenance and training, and logistical field support for experiments. Anyone can apply to use the instruments as long as they provide IRIS with the data they collect during their seismic experiments. IRIS then makes these data available to the public.

Making data available to other scientists is not a new idea, but having that data available on the Internet in a searchable format has revolutionized the way that scientists can interact with the data, allowing for research efforts that would have been impossible before. This collective pooling of data also allows for new kinds of analysis and interpretation on global scales and over long periods of time. In addition, making data easily accessible helps promote interdisciplinary research by opening the doors to exploration by diverse scientists in many fields.

Further Readingtoggle-menu

Anne Egger, Ph.D., Anthony Carpi, Ph.D. “Public databases” Visionlearning Vol. HID (7), 2009.

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