Let Them See Data

Santa Barbara-Based Research Group NCEAS Makes Once Pricey Software Free for All

In this day and age of the all-important bottom line, one Santa Barbara-based research institute is striving to make access to technology - not profit - the priority. Last week, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) - which is located downtown in State Street’s Balboa Building and is affiliated with UC Santa Barbara - announced that a previously pricey software program currently used for tracking fish populations in the ocean can now be downloaded for free by the public. In collaboration with the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (JIMAR) and with grant money from The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, NCEAS was able to purchase the copyright of a cutting-edge fisheries stock assessment software known as the AD Model Builder (ADMB), and then make it accessible to everyone else. (You can download it yourself here.)

But who will want to use it? While the software is already widely used by fisheries scientists to monitor commercially important species such as tuna and halibut, JIMAR’s John Sibert believes the modeling program has potential to benefit a diverse array of public sectors. “While it’s currently used in nearly every fisheries lab in the U.S.,” he explained, “we are hoping to promote its use by a wider group of people in natural resources.” He also thinks that ADMB - which creates “an environment for non-linear statistical modeling enabling rapid model development, numerical stability, fast and efficient computation, and high accuracy parameter estimates” - may be useful in the world of economics to forecast marketing trends. Cutting through the jargon, Sibert explained, “It’s a general purpose modeling tool for relating theory and observation in really complex situations.”

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Recently Jun Yu, a professor in the School of Economics and Social Sciences at Singapore Management University, supported Sibert’s hopes for the program when he spoke at a conference at Oxford University about the functionality of ADMB in developing “Multivariate Stochastic Volatility Models” to predict volatility in markets. In light of this broad potential for ADMB, Sibert emphasized the importance of his labs partnership with NCEAS, because of the organization’s multidisciplinary approach to solving environmental problems by blending law, business, and economics.

NCEAS is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation and was created in 1995 by William Murdoch and Michael Goodchild, two eminent UCSB professors who recognized the need for ecological researchers to collaborate with analytical and database-minded scientists in order to answer critical questions about and provide plausible solutions for our environment. NCEAS’s director of computing Mark Schildhauer explained, “We focus on practical issues that are important, because they will have major consequences for the [environmental] field and policy making, rather than esoteric ones.”

In that context, why is this software important? “Often the scientific community doesn’t think about how data might be shared, or how it might be useful for people elsewhere to build on,” said Schildhauer. “At NCEAS, we believe sharing technology can be used to facilitate collaborative science.” Schildhauer’s desire is that free access to ADMB will grow the environmental management and conservation community already connected by the software to include scientists from Third World countries, who previously couldn’t afford the program.

The next step for NCEAS is to open-source ADMB’s programming, so researchers can get at “what’s under the hood,” Schildhauer explained, and extend its capabilities to maximize performance. While Schildhauer notes that free open-sourcing of code and protocols has strongly fostered the outrageous success of the World Wide Web and computer programs like Linux, it has not been widely incorporated into the fields of ecology and conservation. Schildhauer hopes that open-sourcing ADMB will set a precedent for other technologies to follow suit. However, he acknowledged, “This is a volatile topic, because traditional business models for software usually involve keeping their code a secret, in order to sell it, while scientists often want to see the code to verify that it works properly or improve it.”

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