Geoscientists study natural and simulated geological processes at different scales, from microscopic to global. The data, collected through these studies, originate from a diverse and growing set of instruments that measure, for example, geochemistry of surface water, groundwater, and soil, potential slip along a seismic fault, or isotopic composition of rocks. Rapid access to the data from these instruments is both desired and necessary for deriving information, and assessing the Earth’s natural resources and hazards.
With the proliferation of the data collection equipment, the volume of these complex data, which are produced by scientists with a broad range of perspectives, is reaching a critical limit which makes access to the data more difficult. We are at a stage where integration and interoperability issues, related to these diverse, cross-scale, and cross-discipline data, commonly lead to significant problems that hamper effective scientific research and rapid access to important natural hazard/resources data. This is where geoinformatics can help.
The transition from data to information is achieved through computation, visualization, and other digital processes that make the data more meaningful to the scientists. Other issues, in addition to the ones related to management and integration of data, include those involved in information transfer and processing, and production and consumption of information and knowledge. These topics fall under the realm of the informatics science. Conducting efficient, cross-disciplinary, scholarly communication among the scientists, who are working from different perspectives on the same phenomenon, increasingly depends on the existence of standards – provided by informatics science – for the storage, management, integration, and representation of data, information, and knowledge.
Geoinformatics, as a specialized branch of the informatics science, deals with the creation and processing of information about the geosphere component of the Earth system. This newly established and emerging discipline provides mechanisms for the conceptualization, design, modeling, and implementation methodologies for the management, processing, and representation of the geological information and knowledge. More specifically, geoinformatics applies informatics science to study the structure, composition, function, production, environment, and interactions of different components of information systems that involve storage, processing, management, and conveying information and knowledge in geoscience. The fact that major professional societies such as the Geological Society of America (GSA) and American Geophysical Union (AGU) have recently introduced a new division and section in geoinformatics, respectively, strongly indicates the improved perception of the geoscience community of the value of geoinformatics in their research and education.
A wide range of laboratory and field instruments, continuously acquire a variety of complex data about natural processes and features of the Earth system. Traditionally, Earth scientists deal with these data on an individual basis, without any data or procedural standard. The collected data remain in Excel sheets, or rarely in personal databases, with ad hoc data formats and schemas. The unstructured formats/schemas create real problems for rapid access, integration, and interoperability of the data, and, later, for visualization and representation of the information that can be extracted from these data. These problems are compounded by the exponential growth in the availability of data-collecting and data-generating equipment, which make efficient handling of the voluminous data impractical. These emerging problems have indeed been identified by funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation. The NSF, through a series of continuing workshops, which started in March of 2007, has recently proposed to develop the “National Geoinformatics System of the United States”. This new initiative by the NSF indicates that the funding agency values geoinformatics as one of the promising areas in NSF’s so-called “cyberinfrastructure” initiative.