Effective Virtual Efforts – Approaches by Two EarthCube Projects to Reach Communities

Transitioning from in-person to exclusively virtual events has been a challenge for most people during the current pandemic. Here are examples of recent successful virtual events from two EarthCube projects, with attention to their logistics and execution choices.


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Digital Rocks Portal – Online Data Visualization Competition


The Digital Rocks Portal (DRP) wanted to invite more people to use its platform’s packaged datasets, representing three-dimensional structures of porous materials. They offered an open competition for data visualization products with generous cash prizes as incentives, and provided a virtual training session as well as example Jupyter Notebooks.


The virtual training consisted of a three-hour online mini-course offered via Zoom meeting, made more dynamic by the compact time frame, multiple presenters, and active chat managed by off-duty presenters. Approximately 80 people registered for the training and 70% attended on the day. Over half of the registrants were graduate students in a range of disciplines, especially geoscience and computer science fields, and some with experience in data visualization but not porous materials also participated.


Jupyter Notebooks with functional workflows representative of the data resources and working code were created ahead of time, deposited into a GitHub repository, and made available to participants for demo, reuse, and modification. People were encouraged to use these to work alongside during the training, but to stay focused, the presentations did not wait or offer troubleshooting during the training. Partway through the competition, additional support was offered in a day of open “office hours” for consultation and technical advice. Trainings delivered by the portal team and third-party software providers were captured and published on YouTube for further use. An email list allowed the team to send notices and updates to participants, including a deadline extension by popular demand to work around semester’s end, a conference, and holidays.


Working with sponsors allowed the portal team to offer the attraction of substantial cash prizes, ranging from $250 to $1,000 to help elicit participation. Each of the three visualization type entry categories (static image, video, or 3D-printed structure) offered three awards as incentive for multiple participants to complete their products for the competition. Because Digital Rocks Portal is past its initial NSF EarthCube funding period, continuing to engage a community, gain new users, stimulate new products, and demonstrate reuse of datasets in their repository are important elements of the portal’s sustainability. Sponsors gained an additional receptive audience for their products, potential visualization results to showcase, and a short but intense social media footprint for their support. Some sponsors also contributed by demonstrating their visualization software during the training event and helping to publicize the competition to their own user communities.


The nine prize winners’ data and code will comprise a new project on Digital Rocks Portal, and the DRP team will submit a related paper to SoftwareX or Geoscience Data Journal to promote the educational materials developed for the competition. The Digital Rocks Portal team is grateful to their partnering sponsors for making the competition prizes possible: South Big Data Innovation Hub, ORS Dragonfly, Kitware, & Dassault Systèmes. Competition deadline: Jan. 17, 2021.


Sparrow Software for Geochronology Labs – Workshop and Onboarding


Sparrow held a three-day geochronology workshop to showcase its geochemistry data management software for labs. They brought together over 50 participants from geochronology labs and end-user communities with the goal of getting some additional labs up and running with a basic instance of the Sparrow lab data management system. The event was held immediately preceding the GSA 2020 meeting to take advantage of community timing in gathering virtually for the larger conference (see the original circular).


The first day of the workshop featured talks and discussion from 12 presenters, both live and pre-recorded, to convey background on data and metadata management in Sparrow; hear the perspective of outside workers at Geochron.org, EarthChem, and the USGS; and cover practicalities of implementation to meet lab workflows, analytical processes, user-developed plugins, deployment over a range of lab facilities, and connection to additional data resources. Recordings of all talks can be found on this webpage.


The last two days of the workshop were reserved for preset breakout sessions focused on practical implementation issues (installation and management, plugin/importer development, embargo policy, API design), asynchronous discussion in Slack of these same issues, availability of the core technical team for technical queries, and assistance for attendees to run a basic demo of Sparrow and prototype importers for their own lab’s data formats.


The Sparrow team had over 50 participants in the introductory informational sessions of the workshop, and deeper involvement of over 20 community members during the following two days. Highlights included detailed conversations about the needs of labs in the optically-stimulated luminescence, thermochronology, and in-situ geochemistry fields, as well as conversations on interoperability with EarthChem and Geochron.org. Collaborations explored at the workshop have since contributed to the preparation of several new implementation plans and supplemental grant proposals. Overall, the workshop was great success, with the virtual format enabling wider community participation.


-Ouida Meier, Maša Prodanović, and Daven Quinn

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