#NEONdata: A Recap

As Abstract Season is underway (I have so many conferences I’m considering this year!) I thought it’d be a smart idea to finish up recapping some of my 2018 experiences. As part of my flurry of travel last semester I spent November 8 – 9 attending the Explore Neon Workshop at NEON’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. Looking back, I’m still shocked that so much information and guidance was conveyed in just two days! Myself and several other graduate students traveled to NEON, learned how to access and work with NEON data, and interacted with NEON science staff. I really enjoyed working with data alongside a group of ecologists/botanists/biologists/etc (no shade, statisticians, but ecologists will nerd out with me about nature AND data).

What is NEON?

The National Science Foundation’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) is a continental-scale ecological observation facility that collects and provides open data from field sites across the US. This project has been in the development and planning stages for several years and is now shifting into the beginning of its 30+ years of monitoring producing consistent, comparable, high-quality data. The ultimate goal is to collect data that can characterize and quantify how ecosystems across the 20 ecoclimatic domains  are changing.

 The comprehensive data, spatial extent and remote sensing technology provided by this NSF-funded project ranges in focus among plants, animals, soil, nutrients, freshwater and the atmosphere. This information will enable more accurate forecasting of how human activities impact ecology. We are at a pivotal time where these impacts and the underlying drivers of change and the resulting ecological responses need to be better understood. Future research will be able to more effectively address critical ecological questions and issues. But beyond the observation and monitoring side of things, these data need to get into the hands of scientists and used to answer these questions.

What is the Explore Neon Workshop

During the two-day long workshop we (myself and other data-driven scientists in graduate school) were introduced to NEON and all it entails, which is a lot! The workshop was led by Meagan Jones and Claire Lunch, both NEON scientists and amazing communicators. Our focus was learning how to access and work with NEON data and NEON wanted to promote the utility and availability of the data for graduate research. We spend our time learning with hands-on, interactive instruction how to access and work with NEON data, both through the NEON data portal or with the neonUtilities R package. We also had access to a tour of the facilities, the ability to network with scientists with a variety of positions and backgrounds, and the chance to learn more about some best data handling practices in general.

I found out about this workshop via Twitter! Rachel also independently emailed me about it because she’s the best.

All resources used in the workshop may be found here. Sharing our experiences on social media using the hashtag #NEONdata was encouraged.

What did we learn?

Instrumental data collection station.

During our tour of NEON headquarters we got to explore the different instruments used in data collection and the very (very) precise care, calibration, and organization involved. There are three categories of NEON data.

  1. Remote sensing – Data collected by planes flying overhead with the airborne observation platform.
  2. Observational – Data collected by a human in the field, or in an analytical laboratory.
  3. Instrumentation – Data collected by an automated, streaming sensor that have been deployed across the nation.

The online Data Portal is a great way to quickly browse what data is available including how and when the data are collected. These data products are organized by data status (availability), themes, state location, domain location, site, and data type. It’s a great starting place for understanding the wide range of data products available and search through for content that can be used in your own research.

Getting the data product from the portal to your machine is fairly straight forward thanks to an R package developed explicitly for downloading and exploring NEON data. This script is what we used for learning how to use the neonUtilities package to download NEON data using the neonUtilities package and load them into R for analyses. Again, getting the data out to scientists across fields is paramount for the NEON operation to reach its full potential.

Beyond learning about the data products already available (and those added monthly!) for accessing we had a blast networking with NEON scientists and exploring the domain side of HQ where researchers in charge of collecting, processing, and storing field data are housed. A fan favorite was the herbarium which totally makes me wonder why I didn’t get into plants sooner. (It’s probably because my plant interests are 100% related/restricted to their cuteness level…is there an -ology for that?)

If all of this sounds like it’d be perfect for folks at your institution to learn about you’re in luck because this workshop is going on the road! NEON is opening a call for providing a two-day Explore NEON workshop at host institutions. It’s recommend that all participants have some coding experience in R, but you don’t need to be an advanced programmer. Initial review of applications will occur on 10 March 2019 but applications received after that date will be reviewed on a rolling basis with the possibility of a workshop as funding becomes available. Check out more info here!

Staying Eco-Friendly

Boulder, CO is Eco-Friendly CENTRAL. I’m a little bummed I didn’t get to check out more of its offerings as most of my time was spent either at NEON, at the hotel, or around the Pearl Street area. I was delighted to find out that getting between those three areas was completely walkable. I’d arrived in Colorado a few days early directly from St Louis (another conference) instead of going home then leaving again. This mean cutting an entire flight from my itinerary AND enjoying a few extra days working in CO! I went out to eat a few times while still in the Denver area BUT I’d remembered to bring my takeaway tin for leftovers. I made sure to finish those meals before going out again. (Real talk, my tummy just growled thinking about Indian food leftovers…)

Some other ways I try to approach travel with an environmental mindset include: 

  • Packing my own reusable water bottle
  • Bringing a mason jar for leftovers/compost (I mostly used my jar this time for water/tea since the conference room at NEON had a compost bin!)
  • Bringing my own reused plastic name tag holder (I returned the holder provided and they were happy to reuse it later!)
  • Refusing any extraneous conference swag/handouts (or recycling after using if you must)
  • Buying carbon offsets

Exploring Boulder

I love Colorado. I’ve checked out two of the four national parks the state has to offer. You can read about Rachel’s and my trip to Rocky Mountain NP together as part of our Amazing Besties National Park Road trip series. (Maybe I’ll write a post soon about visiting Great Sand Dunes NP with my husband and parents!?)

I also spent a summer interning near Denver and it’s impossible not to fall in love with the city and the mountains. Benjamin and I would love to end up in Colorado eventually, so every trip there feels more and more familiar and welcoming.

My forever favorite Denver host + Henrietta

While I didn’t have too much time in Boulder for exploring, I did check out several places along Pearl Street (which was thankfully within walking distance!) and met up with some old friends for tequila and munchies.

If you ever have any questions about going to a workshop/conference please feel free to reach out to Rachel and me. We love sharing our experiences and getting new people excited about nerding out about research. We hope to continue to write conference and workshop recaps.  If you’re itchen’ for more recaps of our experiences you can find them all here.


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