NEON Observation System Data Products Will Allow Scientists to Study How Ecosystems are Changing

June 13, 2018

Turning field measurements and samples into usable, downloadable data takes a lot of work—and now that work is paying off. Battelle's NEON project met a major milestone this spring when all 83 Observation System (OS) data products became available through the NEON Data Portal.

For NEON data users, that means that a wealth of new data products are now live. The data portal is currently populated with OS data collected during the construction and early operations phases. Systems are now in place behind the scenes to streamline data collection and automate data processing and publication. As field sampling efforts are expanded at newly operational NEON field sites, these data will become available to the science community on the data portal.

Sarah Elmendorf, who was instrumental in getting these systems into place for the NEON project, said, "Having these systems in place allows us to get data to our users faster while still maintaining data quality. We're very excited to see the data go live and look forward to seeing what our user community will do with it."

A Closer Look at NEON OS Data

The NEON project's OS data products represent the data that result from human observation or collection in the field rather than from instruments. This includes:

  • Manually collected soil, sediment and water samples, which are sent to labs for analysis
  • Field sampling or collection of organisms, which are identified in the lab and may have additional genetic or pathogen analyses (e.g. insects, aquatic macroinvertebrates, microbes or algae)
  • In-situ measurements by NEON field technicians (e.g. plant phenology, structure and composition, downed log surveys, ice on and off dates)

OS data are collected at NEON field sites using standardized terrestrial and aquatic sampling protocols. These data provide important insight into species abundance and diversity, pathogen prevalence, plant phenology and productivity. Together with data collected through instruments (including flux tower measurements, remote sensing data, and aquatic and soil sensor data), the OS data products will allow ecologists to study how ecosystems are changing in response to climate and land use patterns.

Following Data From Field to Download

While the pipelines are now in place for the OS data products, the portal is not yet populated with data from all of the field sites. Legacy data collected before the pipelines were created are still in the process of being reformatted and added to the data portal. Many of the field sites are just now beginning their field sampling programs. Operational data that are currently being collected will be available on the portal later this year.

The lag time between field data collection and portal availability depends on the data product and can vary from a few weeks to several months. In general, data that come from direct field observations (such as plant phenology or species surveys) become available faster than data from samples that must go to an outside lab for analysis. But all of the data have some lag time to allow for necessary quality assurance and processing.

Before it goes live on the portal, each observation must go through several stages:

  • For field observations, field technicians enter data into a mobile application that guides them through the process and conducts basic quality control (such as range checking). After a short waiting period to allow time for manual review, the data are pulled into NEON's centralized database. If possible discrepancies are found—for example, if data on an unknown sample are entered—data are returned to the field staff for correction.
  • Samples are tagged using a barcode system to track sample custody before they are sent to external labs for analysis. The labs return data via spreadsheets uploaded onto a website that uses quality control processes similar to those employed for field data to validate entries before posting results to the database.
  • Once in the database, data are processed to add standardized taxonomic nomenclature and additional metadata (such as geolocation and higher taxonomy).
  • Data are pushed to the data portal only after all quality control and processing is complete. This ensures that the data used by the science community are clean, accurate and contain all of the pertinent information that researchers may need.
  • Data from all field sites and years download in a standardized format with associated documentation and metadata. This standardized formatting allows you to easily work with the data using reproducible workflows.

Researchers can find more information NEON's OS data products and data quality the NEON Data Portal. You can also find coding resources to help you work with the data and tutorials to improve your data skills.

Have a Research Idea? Check Out NSF Early NEON Science Grants

OS data from the NEON project are freely available to researchers, students and the public through the NEON data portal. As the data portal is populated with additional data, they will be an invaluable resource for a wide variety of ecological studies.

The data available now are already being put to use by researchers across the country. One recent study used NEON small mammal data to examine the interrelationships between climate, traits and species richness.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funding available for researchers interested in making use of the early data coming out of the NEON project. The Macrosystems Biology and Early NEON Science grant program funds studies that use NEON data to examine how biosphere processes are impacted by climate, land use and invasive species at regional or continental scales. Some of the early work coming out of this program includes:

  • A collaborative research project that seeks to define stream biomes in order to understand and forecast stream ecological changes
  • An examination of the effects of a forest fire on soil and aquatic organic matter
  • Research into the effects of climate change on plant species that thrive in unusual soil ecosystems

The proposal deadline for the next round of Early NEON Science grants is October 15, 2018.

Are you using NEON OS data in your research? We'd like to hear about it! Fill out our contact us form and tell us how NEON data supports your research.

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