Online tools, access to experimental data and other services provided through "cyber-infrastructure" are helping to accelerate progress in earthquake engineering and science according to a new study.

The research comes out of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), based at Purdue University, which includes 14 laboratories for earthquake engineering and tsunami research, all tied together with cyber-infrastructure to provide information technology for the network.

Central to this is the NEEShub, a web-based gateway housing experimental results which are accessible for reuse by researchers, practitioners and educational communities. It contains more than 1.6 million project files stored in over 398,000 project directories and has been shown to have at least 65,000 users over the past year.

“It’s a one-stop shopping site for the earthquake-engineering community to access really valuable intellectual contributions as well as experimental data,” said Thomas Hacker, an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Information Technology at Purdue and co-leader of information technology for NEES. “It provides critical information technology services in support of earthquake engineering research and helps to accelerate science and engineering progress in a substantial way.”

A major element of the NEES cyber-infrastructure is a “project warehouse” that provides a place for researchers to upload project data, documents, papers and dissertations containing important experimental knowledge for the NEES community to access.

“A key factor in our efforts is the very strong involvement of experts in earthquake engineering and civil engineering in every aspect of our IT,” Hacker said.

According to Hacker, a cyber-infrastructure effort needs to address both the technology and social elements in order to be successful.

“The technological elements include high-speed networks, laptops, servers and software,” he said. “The sociology includes the software-development process, the way we gather and prioritize user requirements and needs and our work with user communities.”

The project warehouse and NEEShub collects “metadata,” or descriptive information about research needed to ensure that the information can be accessed in the future.

“Say you have an experiment with sensors over a structure to collect data like voltages over time or force displacements over time,” said Dr. Rudi Eigenmann of NEEShub. “What’s important for context is not only the data collected, but from which sensor, when the experiment was conducted, where the sensor was placed on the structure. When someone comes along later to reuse the information they need the metadata.”

The resources are curated, meaning the data is organized in a fashion that ensures it hasn’t been modified and are valid for reference in the future.

“We take extra steps to ensure the long-term integrity of the data,” Hacker said.

To help quantify the impact on research, projects are ranked by how many times they are downloaded. One project alone has had 3.3 million files downloaded.

The site also has a DOI, or digital object identifier, for each project.

“It’s like a permanent identifier that goes with the data set,” Hacker said. “It gives you a permanent link to the data.”

NEES researchers will continue to study the impact of cyber-infrastructure on engineering and scientific progress.

“The use and adoption of cyber-infrastructure by a community is a process,” Hacker said. “At the beginning of the process we can measure the number of visitors and people accessing information. The ultimate impact of the cyber-infrastructure will be reflected in outcomes such as the number of publications that have benefited from using the cyber-infrastructure. It takes several years to follow that process and we are in the middle of that right now, but evidence points to a significant impact.”