Meeting Data User Needs: A Look Behind the Curtain

The needs of global data users drive the many strategies used by NASA's ESDIS Project to continually enhance its products and services.

What do data users need? When it comes to the data, products, and services provided by NASA’s Earth Science Data and Information System (ESDIS) Project, basic needs include having data easily discoverable, processed to the required data product level (from raw and near real-time data to extensively-processed Level 4 products), and available—quickly and efficiently—in a variety of formats. NASA’s free and open data policy means that ESDIS faces the additional challenge of fulfilling these basic needs for a global community comprising millions of distinct data users.

The success of ESDIS in facilitating use of the more than 27.4 petabytes (PB) of Earth observing data in NASA’s Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) collection is due, in no small part, to its ability to continually adapt to serve its ever-growing and changing user community. A look “behind the curtain” shows the many internal and external strategies employed by ESDIS to assess user needs and some of the ways these needs are technically addressed.

Ways of assessing data user needs.
The ESDIS Project utilizes a wide range of formal and informal strategies for assessing user needs. Input from these assessments is used as the basis for constant improvement and enhancement to ESDIS Project services, tools, and interfaces. Illustration based on a graphic originally created by Dr. Chris Lynnes, EOSDIS System Architect. NASA EOSDIS graphic.

ESDIS uses a number of formal and informal external strategies for determining if existing products and services are meeting user needs. A key formal strategy is the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey that is sent to hundreds of thousands of worldwide EOSDIS data users. The ACSI is used by the Federal Government (including by NASA and numerous other agencies) as well as corporations across a wide range of industries as an accepted national measure of customer satisfaction with products and services. Results from ACSI survey questions and, especially, from open-ended comments by respondents provide vital information that helps ensure that ESDIS and the discipline-specific EOSDIS Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs) are providing the high-quality service and products users expect.

Another formal strategy for determining user needs is through scheduled meetings of DAAC User Working Groups (UWGs). A DAAC’s UWG is a vital link between the DAAC and the Earth science discipline community served by the DAAC. The subject-matter experts who make up a DAAC’s UWG provide not only guidance and direction for the DAAC, but also deep insight and specific recommendations for enhancements to existing data products and the creation of new products.

Along with the formal ACSI survey and DAAC UWGs, user input is also received through numerous informal strategies. One important informal mechanism is through comments or questions submitted using the “Feedback” button on the Earthdata and individual DAAC webpages. In addition, face-to-face interactions at conferences between ESDIS and DAAC staff and conference attendees along with the opportunity for live feedback during webinars and workshops (such as through polling questions or during question and answer periods) provide additional valuable information.

Supplementing these external assessments, ESDIS occasionally establishes short-term internal focus groups to look more closely at specific issues. A User Needs Focus Group was chartered in 2016 to review cross-discipline and cross-DAAC user issues, identify best practices throughout the DAAC system, and develop unified strategies to address user needs.

The work of the User Needs Focus Group culminated in a User Needs Technical Interchange Meeting (UN-TIM) held in August 2016. The UN-TIM brought together DAAC managers and representatives along with ESDIS managers and systems engineers with the overall objectives of:

  • Sorting and characterizing user needs;
  • Providing an assessment, prioritization, and ranking of categorized needs;
  • Enabling DAACs to easily see where collaboration in support of user needs can be done more effectively; and
  • Prioritizing common cross-DAAC tools to address common issues or needs.

The outcome of the 2016 UN-TIM was a prioritized list of recommendations. While some recommendations were related to improving the user experience through enhancements to systems architecture and internal ESDIS and DAAC processes, many related to improving the direct user experience with data and services. These recommendations included the development of a Getting Started Guide for new data users, improved data set documentation and technical notes, and the development of a more robust bulk data download capability.

In July 2018, DAAC and ESDIS representatives met for a second UN-TIM to review the 2016 UN-TIM recommendations and discuss evolving user needs. Implemented 2016 UN-TIM recommendations include the beta release of a Getting Started Guide, enhancements to various services to make them more user-friendly (such as the integration of Open-source Project for a Network Data Access Protocol (OPeNDAP) with other existing services to enable better networking and data access), and collaborative cross-DAAC development of Earthdata Drive as a way to provide users with a more efficient and secure bulk download capability.

Ongoing and new recommendations from the 2018 UN-TIM include continuing to improve the bulk download user experience; measuring social media efforts more effectively to better connect users with ESDIS and DAAC activities; going beyond the ACSI survey to gain better insight into how data users interact with specific DAACs, DAAC products, and DAAC tools; and exploring more cross-DAAC efforts for DAAC-wide services.

Of course, user needs also must be addressed as well as assessed. Some recommendations, such as the development of a Getting Started Guide, are relatively straightforward. Technical enhancements, such as adjustments to data download architecture or development of cross-DAAC services, are more complex and require the collaborative efforts of the entire ESDIS team, both at the ESDIS Project Office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at individual DAACs. This is where ESDIS Systems Engineering Technical Interchange Meetings (SE-TIMs) come in.

SE-TIMs bring together systems engineers, developers, and management teams to discuss a wide range of topics related to the technical aspects of improving, enhancing, and developing ESDIS systems. UN-TIM recommendations, the ACSI survey, and other assessments provide much of the foundation for the SE-TIM agenda and discussions. Along with plenary sessions covering ESDIS-wide efforts, numerous break-out sessions over several days enable smaller teams to address specific engineering, system, and development challenges or to provide updates about on-going efforts. The three-day 2018 SE-TIM was attended by more than 150 participants.

The ESDIS SE-TIM meetings complement the work of NASA’s Earth Science Data System Working Groups (ESDSWG). Established in 2004, the ESDSWG is a NASA organization comprising short-term working groups organized around key technology and information system issues. Each working group has a one-year charter that can be renewed for an additional year (if necessary) along with an action plan defining specific objectives, stakeholders, activities, and deliverables. A working group is retired once its objectives have been met. One responsibility of the ESDSWG is to improve ESDIS efficiency and user interaction through developing guidelines and best practices addressing the implementation of standards and technologies, enhancing data interoperability, and improving software development and software architecture. These actions further aid in addressing identified user needs and enhancing ESDIS products and services.

In the end, it is the global community of EOSDIS data users that drives the many proactive efforts by ESDIS and the DAACs to continually enhance data, products, and services. This brief peek “behind the curtain” shows the many ways user needs are continually assessed and how these insights enable user needs to be addressed. The results of these collaborative efforts ensure that NASA Earth science data are easily discoverable and constantly available in the data processing levels and formats required to support interdisciplinary Earth science research.

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