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Use-Case Training for the Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Research Community

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On May 19, 2014, twenty-three individuals from three local Woods Hole, Massachusetts, research organizations—the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL)—sat down in the USGS conference room on the WHOI campus to hear Peter Fox (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, adjunct to WHOI) describe a “use-case” methodology for systems engineering and the design of business processes. The participants included researchers, data managers, programmers, and students. Some were skeptical but nevertheless intrigued. Some were initially overwhelmed with new terminology, but in the breakout groups that followed, they began to learn, engage, and explore the process. Two days later, these participants unanimously considered use-case methodology to be beneficial for collaborating in research, data management, and software development. The participants concluded the workshop by proposing a new Woods Hole virtual organization for those trained in this process.

Participants in the May 2014 use-case training for the Woods Hole, Massachusetts, research community
Above: Participants in the May 2014 use-case training for the Woods Hole, Massachusetts, research community. Fran Lightsom, U.S. Geological Survey (front row, far right), and Stace Beaulieu, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (front row, far left), convened the workshop. Peter Fox, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (middle row, with hands clasped), provided guidance in use-case methodology. [larger version]

So, what is a use case? The term is used in systems and software engineering to describe the interactions between a user and a system or software to achieve a specific goal. The methodology has been expanded by Fox and colleagues at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to include other types of goals—data management, for instance—and has been applied in particular to interdisciplinary collaborations in the sciences. The RPI methodology is officially titled the “TWC Semantic Web Methodology,” with “TWC” referring to the RPI Tetherless World Constellation group and “semantic web” referring to a broad range of work conducted by this group to facilitate sharing data and information over the Internet. (Learn more about the TWC Semantic Web Methodology .) It turns out that semantics—the meaning of words, phrases, and symbols in a particular context—is important in most collaborations, especially interdisciplinary scientific collaborations in which people from diverse backgrounds share a common goal but need to develop common vocabularies and protocols for exchanging data in order to achieve that goal.

After the introductory lecture by Fox, each participant wrote down an individual goal, following a basic template used in Fox’s e-Science courses at RPI. (e-Science refers to computer-intensive methods of managing, sharing, and analyzing large data sets—often called “big data” in the press.) Then each participant shared his or her individual use-case goal with the whole group. In plenary, we decided on three of the use cases to pursue further in smaller groups: “Citizen Science Biodiversity,” “Compliance Checker,” and “Protein Portal.” Each small group consisted of participants from the three institutions—USGS, WHOI, and MBL—with a balance of skills and disciplines. This approach of using small teams with mixed skills has proven successful as part of the use-case methodology.

The Citizen Science Biodiversity group, led by Dave Remsen, manager of the Marine Resources Center at MBL, proposed a goal to “use School of Science students to collect species occurrence data in Eel Pond [Massachusetts] to be published online for education and research.” (The Children’s School of Science offers field-oriented summer courses for children aged 7–16.) The Compliance Checker group, led by Danie Kinkade of the Biological and Chemical Oceanography Data Management Office (BCO–DMO) at WHOI, proposed a goal to “streamline process for Program Manager to check on status of award number and project names by providing one view” (a single webpage that provides all the information the program manager needs). The Protein Portal group, led by Mak Saito, associate scientist in WHOI’s Marine Chemistry Department, proposed a goal to “create a portal that allows users to discover where, when, and which organisms contain a protein/enzyme of interest that occurs in the oceans through a bioinformatics analysis of large mass-spectral libraries created from many oceanic samples.”

Following the RPI methodology, each team described how “actors” interact with the “system” to achieve their goals, prepared activity diagrams illustrating these interactions and their outcomes, and modeled the concepts that play an important role in the use case. (Read about similar workshops held in late 2011 and early 2012, “Moving Toward a World Wide Web for Scientific Data—Working Sessions on Use Cases for Semantic-Web Development”.) This three-pronged approach leads to the orderly development of design requirements for the system—often, but not necessarily, a computer system (use cases are ideal for business processes).

Enthusiasm is growing as more people come to understand use cases. At the conclusion of the 2014 workshop, one participant from WHOI commented, “I think if everyone at WHOI were familiar with or at least exposed to this methodology, we’d be able to communicate better, write better proposals, and work better together across disciplines.” Another participant said, “The methodology is so useful: it helps groups narrow down their scope/focus, but also helps reveal new ideas that wouldn’t come about without that group interaction.”

The workshop was convened by Fran Lightsom, USGS, and Stace Beaulieu, WHOI, and was sponsored by the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center, WHOI Ocean Informatics Initiative, and Woods Hole Data Mongers.

Related Sound Waves Stories
Moving Toward a World Wide Web for Scientific Data—Working Sessions on Use Cases for Semantic-Web Development
Jan. / Feb. 2012
Harnessing the Power of Coastal and Marine Data for Science and Society: The Knowledge Management Workshop
July 2010
Technical Workshop on Ocean and Coastal Mapping Inventory
Jan. / Feb. 2008
Workshop on New Directions in Geographic Visualization of Scientific Data
Jan. / Feb. 2007

Related Websites
TWC Semantic Web Methodology

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in this issue:

Spotlight on Sandy
USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal

New Tide Gage/Weather Station Near Mashpee, Massachusetts

Oceanographic Gear Retrieved from Offshore of Fire Island, New York

Coral Reefs Along West-Central Guam—Historical Impacts

Geologic Evidence of Past Tsunamis in California

USGS Helps Celebrate the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Public Lecture on Deep-Sea Corals Takes Audience “Into the Abyss”

USGS Gas Hydrates Project Hosts Japanese Colleagues

Use-Case Training for the Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Research Community

Spring 2014 Monterey Bay Marine GIS User Group Meeting

July / August Publications

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