In May 2010—nearly two weeks after the Macondo tragedy—the National Incident Command, in charge of the continuing emergency response efforts to halt the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, turned to U.S. scientists. The Flow Rate Technical Group, a diverse collection of scientists and engineers from 11 federal laboratories, universities and research institutions, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), was assembled to establish an accurate estimate of flow rate that was being discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. This mission required efficient and timely access to data, analytical tools and coordination capabilities to effectively handle the challenges associated with this multiorganization collaboration.

It quickly became apparent—even through the urgency of rapid response—that the assembled multiorganizational group was facing difficulties that increasingly mirrored the challenges facing scientific teams performing day-today R&D.

“There were so many organizations involved, spread out across the country, and there were limited options to ensure efficient access to each other’s files,” said Kelly Rose, a research scientist at NETL who witnessed the emergency response efforts. “Datasets were too large to simply be emailed, and with each organization limited by its own servers, there were impediments to timely, multiorganizational collaboration.”

Coincidentally, Rose and a small team of NETL researchers had begun work on an innovative platform tailored to mitigate the R&D challenges faced by DOE and NETL-affiliated collaborators. Witnessing the communication barriers that hindered the Flow Rate Technical Group only served to prioritize and accelerate the development efforts at NETL. By 2011, these efforts had blossomed into a unique initiative―a tool that would help connect researchers, not just in emergencies but also with the day-to-day exchange difficulties of technical collaborations―NETL’s Energy Data eXchange, or EDX.

Developed by researchers for researchers

EDX is a knowledge-sharing tool designed to house and connect users to energy-related datasets, provide key tools to support data analysis and evaluation, and host secure team collaborative workspaces that can streamline research partnerships. That is, Rose admitted, a complicated summary.

“But EDX isn’t simple to condense into one function because it was designed to meet multiple needs simultaneously,” she said. “At its heart EDX is a tool. It’s online, it has a web interface—but behind the scenes? It’s a tool developed by researchers for researcherrelated needs and to facilitate discoverability, accessibility and utility of data, and tools and functions multiorganizational teams need every day to address energy-related technical challenges.”

EDX already has benefited scientists affiliated with NETL’s research community who rely on the platform to collaborate with partners at universities, in industry, and in other federal and state facilities. The National Risk Assessment Partnership, which draws members from five separate DOE national labs, has embraced the tools that the system offers in its efforts to develop risk profiles of CO2 storage sites. 

The Offshore Energy Resources team has also embraced the tools as they work toward developing a scientific basis for understanding and reducing risks associated with offshore E&P activities. Roy Long, the technology manager for NETL’s Offshore Portfolio, has found the system to be a flexible, powerful asset to his programs.

“Despite the complexity and sophistication of the EDX system, if a person simply goes to the portal, they will find a very user-friendly interface that connects them to information about NETL’s recent offshore research activities and an array of beneficial tools and products resulting from those activities,” Long said.

Multifaceted, multifunctional

Data loss is a serious problem that plagues the research community. The primary datasets that underpin most science and engineering studies and resulting peerreviewed research publications are lost over time, becoming essentially inaccessible as little as five years after a publication’s release. EDX aims to counteract this trend, at least for energy-related systems. 

The primary datasets available through the system contain results from hundreds of fossil energy research projects, and the available number continues to grow as users upload their own datasets. Some datasets are current, some are historic, but as content is added to the system, it is made accessible for use now or for future yet-to-be envisioned purposes.

Not all data are appropriate for public distribution; some datasets are in the process of being developed, while others have proprietary or commercial limitations associated with them. EDX provides different tiers of access to ensure that information is shared appropriately. Public data (including a mix of structured and unstructured datasets and links to externally hosted authoritative relevant data resources) are available to any visitor to the system. This access assists users in efficiently finding the most recent version of a dataset from its primary source.

In addition to the system’s publicly available data resources, the system workspaces offer individual research teams a secure environment to develop, use and pool data resources related to ongoing research efforts. These developing and sometimes proprietary resources eventually culminate in final technical products, including new final data resources that may eventually be pushed to the public side of EDX. Rose noted that this function means that EDX plays a key role in knowledge preservation and data discoverability.

“Often technical products of the past become pertinent to R&D needs of the present or future. One example of this clearly is the wealth of data generated by the Eastern and Western Gas Shale Programs that DOE supported in the 1970s and 1980s,” she said. “Results from those programs are now being accessed via EDX and reused in relation to research focused on today’s domestic shale oil and gas development activities, including NETL’s own Unconventional Resources R&D portfolio.”

The system also connects users to outside data sources. There is an ever-growing wealth of publically available data that is pertinent to ongoing energy R&D; however, finding those data resources may be difficult. Through EDX Groups users are able to access datasets through preset “searches” tied to a given theme. Other functions of the site include EDX Tools and EDX Portfolios. EDX Tools, like Geocube, geoWELL and MFiX, offer users unique ways to analyze data, while EDX Portfolios promote information-sharing, technology development and technology transfer.

The system serves as a flexible, practical answer to the challenges of multiorganizational collaboration by offering researchers a user-friendly workspace and an easy way to discover and access the data, resources and tools needed for both day-to-day and rapid response R&D.

Future look

EDX resulted from the urgent need to develop a better method of secure collaboration and resource sharing. Today the system continues to evolve as it started, built by researchers to meet the needs of researchers. As its user base steadily grows and expands, the feedback collected from users drives the weekly incremental changes to the system and spurs the longer range plans for its future. As with any solution rooted in information technology, EDX is a living creation, responding to technology changes and emerging trends. The system will continue to evolve to keep providing solutions to the challenges that lay ahead.