Sea level research and “open source” science

I’ve been inspired to start this blog after reading a Nature article by Timothy Gowers on the subject of “Massively Collaborative Mathematics”. Now, I’m no Fields Medallist like Timothy Gowers, but the possibility of conducting research out in the open in a such a way that anyone can contribute, is very interesting to me.

The aim of this blog is less a discussion of climate science in general, than an attempt to engage with whoever is interested in the details of sea level research.

Sea level research is far wider than simply “climate science”. It has applications in many areas of Earth sciences.  I find it interesting to be reminded that the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL), where I work, was originally founded (in 1933) with the objective of having a fixed datum against which to measure land movements. It was only after collecting data for some years that people started realising that sea level is far from static. Both land and sea levels change, which is one of the aspects of this research which makes it so challenging.

The longer term aim of this blog then, is to see if collaborative sea level research is possible, in a similar manner to that described by Timothy Gowers in the post which started the PolyMath project.

Sea level research is very different from the mathematics that Timothy Gowers describes. To start with it is very much applied science which is dealing with observational datasets, and all the complexities that come with “real” data. However, as a minimum I think that is worth carrying out what is sometimes described as Open Notebook Science which at least allows anyone who is interested to follow the development of ideas, and perhaps, to make useful comments on weaknesses in the approach or alternative ways to tackle the problem.

I hope that this blog will be far more than a diary of the work that I’m doing though. I’d like other people to contribute ideas and to work on the problems collaboratively. In my next post I’ll talk in a bit more detail about the kind of approach that I envisage and try to develop the ideas a bit further.

About simonholgate

I'm CEO of Sea Level Research Ltd ( - a Liverpool, UK based startup that uses machine learning to predict sea level surges and optimise shipping movements into and out of port. I'm an oceanographer and I'm also a Clojure developer who is interested in democracy and Big Data.
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4 Responses to Sea level research and “open source” science

  1. Simon Brewer says:

    Open Source Science!

    Sounds like a brave and necessary move, given recent scandals and questions over transparency. I’ll be interested to see where this goes, and will look forward to adding my 2 cents or 2 pennies… Maybe we could start with a simple study to set things up?

    What kinds of software exist for this kind of collaborative approach? Google wave?

    Merry Xmas

  2. simonholgate says:

    Thank you for your Christmas greetings!

    I’d certainly like to explore Google Wave more, but at the moment it’s beta software and a bit exclusive. I’m also not quite sure about how I feel putting all my research into Google’s hands. They’re a commercial company, after all, and not just there for our benefit. “Neither is WordPress!”, I hear you say. Too true! But maybe we need to share things around and not have all our eggs in one basket, so to speak.

    My thinking at the moment is to work, as the PolyMath project did, between a blog and a wiki. As Timothy Gowers wrote, a blog is rather too linear in that it makes it hard for new users to come in – they have to start reading right back at the beginning to understand what is going on. On the other hand, wiki’s are rather too *non*-linear and don’t give a logical route through the development of the ideas. So in the PolyMath project, things were worked out in the blog then digested into the wiki.

    I’m open to other ideas though. I won’t rule Google Wave out. Perhaps that can be worked into this process as another tool alongside the blog and wiki, especially for authoring papers. Any other ideas for ways of doing this?

    Happy Christmas!

  3. Simon Brewer says:

    One example of collaborative efforts at the moment is the Paleo-climate reconstruction challenge, organised by Caspar Ammann at NCAR. I believe the idea is that this will be done in an open way, although their website is down at the moment so I can’t check. Something similar for sea-level would be great!

    Happy New Year (do we only post on holidays?)

    • Simon Holgate says:

      Having read the Palaeo-Climate Reconstruction Challenge web pages, I have to say that I’m very much in favour of what they are doing. I certainly hope that something similar can be achieved in sea level.

      I think I’d also like to take what they are suggesting a bit further. Not only do I want to share the information and inter-comparison openly, as they PCR Challenge is doing, I’d like any one to be able to be able to contribute to the discussions and the work – “citizen science” as it is sometimes called.

      Well, the seed has been planted. I’ll post again with more thoughts on how to do this and what sort of research might be undertaken.

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