Data Chat: Aaron Friesz

Aaron Friesz, a NASA Openscapes mentor at NASA's Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center (LP DAAC), helps promote open science principles to empower more diverse, inclusive, and effective data science communities.
Joseph M. Smith
Aaron Friesz, science coordination lead at NASA’s LP DAAC, is one of several DAAC personnel in the first class of NASA Openscapes mentors. Image courtesy of Aaron Friesz.

Openscapes was created to promote open, collaborative, and welcoming scientific communities. Its aim is to change the culture of data-intensive science through partnerships with agencies like NASA and collaborative approaches that involve coaching, community organizing, skill building, and engaging with open communities and data users.

In 2021, with NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) funding, Openscapes took another step toward fulfilling its mission when it enlisted mentors from five NASA Distributed Active Archive Centers (DAACs)—the Atmospheric Science Data Center (ASDC), the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center (GES DISC), the Land Processes DAAC (LP DAAC), the National Snow and Ice Data Center DAAC (NSIDC DAAC), and the Physical Oceanography DAAC (PO. DAAC). This team of mentors—NASA Openscapes—focused on learning and applying open science principles within their communities and developing best practices for Earth observation data users to migrate their workflows to the cloud.

Leveraging skills gained from The Carpentries, a data and software skills training network, the NASA DAAC mentors prepared to lead workshops designed to impart NASA data-specific cloud skills and collaborate on the creation of learning resources for their teams and communities.

One of these NASA DAAC mentors is Aaron Friesz, science coordination lead at NASA's LP DAAC. In the following interview, Friesz discusses what being a NASA Openscapes mentor entails, how he and his fellow mentors promote open science, and the resources available to help users develop their cloud computing skills.

What is Openscapes and what are its goals?

Openscapes is, first of all, an organization that teaches and advocates for open, inclusive, and kinder science. It's also an approach, one that we're leveraging to learn about and incorporate open science practices in our everyday work and is, ultimately, a big component in the movement toward open science. Its intent is to accelerate data-driven solutions using open science practices and to increase the diversity, equality, equity, and inclusion in science communities. This is all done through teaching the open science mindset.

Openscapes intends to promote not only open science, but a kinder, more inclusive and transparent science, so that no one is left on their own trying to answer scientific questions. The whole idea of a solo scientist struggling to answer questions is inefficient. We can achieve a lot more when we're engaged in science [collaboratively] and working in a friendly, non-condescending way that welcomes as many people into that group as possible.

Openscapes uses a few tools to accomplish this. There is the NASA Openscapes Mentors Framework, which blends tech and community building through mentoring and coaching, and the Champions Program, an open data science mentorship program for science teams that helps them get their own work done while building skills and community.

As mentors, we're really trying to expand the reach of Openscapes by showing where open science practices can be applied and how they benefit those involved, and then, hopefully, those we're working with will take these practices back to their own communities. So, it's really a train-the-trainer type of situation where we're trying to bring that knowledge to more people, have them take it back to their contacts, and grow the movement.

How does Openscapes connect to and support the larger open science movement, or are they different facets of the same effort?

They are more or less one and the same. I think Openscapes is unique because open science and initiatives like NASA's Transform to Open Science (TOPS) have been pushing the technological and best practices side of open science, like ensuring that the software you’re using is open-source software and that your science is published in open science journals and your code is available in [open repositories like] GitHub. We in NASA Openscapes believe we should use those tools and utilities to promote and work as a collective, but there's also that human component of being respectful of your peers, putting yourself out there, and being vulnerable enough to say, "I'm willing to take on this kind of open science mindset and work with others in this way."

I often hear that people are worried that their science is going to get scooped, but if you acknowledge that human component, then you can say, "Hey, it's okay to share my messy code. It's OK to put out a pre-print because, ultimately, it is going to benefit the science community and hopefully the greater good."

That's how I see Openscapes, at least in my experience. It really kind of hones-in on the human component and shows you that there's a community you can lean on that contains individuals who have been or are in the same place as you. They've adopted this open science mindset, it hasn't been detrimental to them, and you can learn from them. That's where I see Openscapes contributing to open science, but ultimately it is all under that same open science umbrella.

The Openscapes approach for movement building and sustainability is based on the Flywheel concept, the process that drives how the organization works day-in and day-out over several years. Credit: Openscapes.

You are part of the first class of NASA Openscapes mentors. What does mentorship entail?

Having a willingness to learn and then implement what we've learned in our own lives and positions as DAAC personnel has been an important part of being a mentor. You won't be successful if you aren't really open to the idea of open science and developing an open science mindset. Asking yourself, "What can I do in my community? How can we make activities or resources more inclusive? Are we excluding anyone in this specific activity?” As NASA Openscapes mentors, we were exposed to this mindset through Openscapes and now we are responsible for taking it out to our communities to advocate for and teach this mindset to others. As mentors, I think we're just trying to be examples as we operate within the systems that we're in, trying to identify where we can make impacts and where there are opportunities to change.

When I hear the word mentor it implies the presence of mentees and a kind of teacher-student dynamic. However, what you're describing suggests a different scenario wherein the mentors have been trained in the open science philosophy and then share it with their colleagues and peers. Is that an accurate assessment?

Yes. I've never thought of it in the traditional sense of the word mentor, but yes, even as mentors we will, within our communities, go out and advocate for open science and open science practices.

But within our cohort or mentor group we're learning a ton from each other, too. PO.DAAC, for example, generally supports the ocean and water communities, but they have users and use cases that are useful to me and my [LP DAAC] community. And so, I've been able to ask the PO.DAAC mentors, "How did you do this? Could you put that in an open area where I could grab it, do some work on it, and then contribute back to what you're doing?" Or maybe take what they've done and use it to contribute to another project that's out there. So, the mentors also learn a lot from each other.

As a mentor you are responsible for promoting open science. How do you do that?

Ultimately this comes down to practicing what you preach, right? We, as a mentor group, leverage GitHub as kind of this central repository for not just code, but also for collaborative planning. For example, documenting upcoming events or meetings we may be going to and identifying opportunities for collaborative work. So, we leverage open community tools like GitHub and implement them within our domain, and apply the Openscapes principles to the science communities we are engaged with right now.  

Openscapes showed us that GitHub is an option to use and so we try to take advantage of it by publishing tutorials, how-tos, and other resources on GitHub and making them as open as possible. We can converse with members of the community [on GitHub], as well. Individuals can make recommendations or report issues in the resources. Individuals can also submit changes or pull requests to that repository, which we can then review and add to if accepted.

In addition to trying to make things available to a broader community, we're trying to engage with the members of our own communities. So, you know, not just going to conferences and meetings to be seen, but doing more targeted and specific things too, such as having meetings where we discuss potential opportunities for collaboration and creating resources where we see a gap. So, we are establishing open lines of communication among our groups.

NASA Openscapes DAAC mentors (left to right) Chris Battisto (GES DISC), Luis Lopez (NSIDC DAAC), Alexis Hunzinger (GES DISC), Catalina Oaida Taglialatela (PO.DAAC), and Amy Steiker (NSIDC DAAC) discussing future needs and opportunities at the 2023 NASA Openscapes retreat. Credit: NASA Openscapes/Julie Lowndes.

As a NASA Openscapes mentor, how do you address the needs of new data users?

There are a couple of ways we're approaching this. The NASA Openscapes mentors have really focused on cloud computing and how working with data in the cloud can facilitate open science. There have been barriers and hesitation from our users about adopting cloud computing, so we needed a way to show users that it is beneficial.

We identified a fantastic partner, 2i2C, a nonprofit project of Code for Science and Society, that set up and managed a JupyterHub community deployed in [the cloud]. These hubs are spaces where users can experience working in the cloud, and the hub gave us a space to work collaboratively within our group and take the resources that we created and use them in workshops and teaching events. We've had several of these [workshops] and they allow us to tell people, "Hey, NASA is moving data into the cloud, you can download data as you would have in the past at no charge. However, now that the data are in the cloud, you have an opportunity to work with data at scale and accelerate your data-driven solutions."

Addressing the needs of those completely new to the world of Earth science data is more challenging. Many of the resources I've been involved in developing have assumed some familiarity with remote sensing, with the LP DAAC, or with NASA's DAACs in general, and they're going to have some idea of the data that they're interested in. That leaves a large swath of potential users out of the equation. Specifically, people who know nothing about remote sensing data. We're still kind of feeling our way around this and having internal discussions given our experience with the different communities that we have been involved with. We're trying to determine how we can communicate with communities that don't know anything about our data or remote sensing but may find some utility in using it. It's a difficult thing to do, but the first step is being aware of the problem so we can figure out ways to address it.

How can people encouraged by this shift to open science and who want to know more about working in the cloud or using remote sensing data get started? Have you and your fellow mentors produced any resources to help people take that first step?

First and foremost, the Openscapes website is a good space to start for those interested in its work. Openscapes is not just a NASA initiative; they have mentors in other spaces—the private sector, regional government, federal agencies, and so on. NASA Openscapes has its own landing page that users can visit to see everything we've done. This page will also lead users to the resources we've created for transitioning to the Earthdata Cloud—it's called the NASA Earthdata Cloud Cookbook. There are also links to our GitHub pages, which are open to the public. All of these would be good examples of the things that have come out of NASA Openscapes.

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