ICOS: Open data for international environmental research

ICOS, or the Integrated Carbon Observation System, is a thrilling example of the breakthroughs that can be achieved as a result of collaboration and openness. Openness is particularly important for environmental research because the observation of climate change and similar phenomena requires sufficiently long, open time series.

Having moved from atmospheric physics to research infrastructures, Ari Asmi (@asmi_ari) explores open-data issues on a daily basis. Asmi’s position as an open-data expert in the international ICOS research infrastructure (@ICOS_RI) takes him across Europe to work with various international research projects.

ICOS makes data available for all


The Integrated Carbon Observation System (ICOS) is a distributed European research infrastructure, i.e., an organisation comprised of researchers, research stations, measuring equipment and measuring data for monitoring concentrations of greenhouse gases as well as their emission and absorption.

Asmi says that ICOS represents a breakthrough because the measuring of, for example, greenhouse gases was previously highly decentralised. The ICOS research infrastructure means that observations are now better defined and more professional because everyone involved uses the same approaches. This benefits both researchers and the public.

“The standardisation of observations adds to their social significance,” Asmi points out.

ICOS is characterised not only by shared approaches, but also by open research and openly available research data. Asmi notes that open data is crucial particularly for environmental research.

We can’t go back to the 1950s to measure the temperature, or monitor the climate if the timespan is not sufficiently long.

“If no data is available or preserved, we lose time series that are highly valuable for environmental research. For example, we can’t go back to the 1950s to measure the temperature, or monitor the climate if the timespan is not sufficiently long.” 

Asmi says that the problem is not so much with the attitudes of researchers, but with their lack of knowledge: views on open data are highly varied.

“People don’t usually have anything against open data, but they may have widely different views on it. Many researchers think they produce open data, but the reality may be different,” Asmi explains.

For example, the Academy of Finland has only recently begun to require that applicants for research funding outline what they intend to do with their research data. This is often the point when researchers contact Asmi for help with deadlocks related to open data.

Open questions

But what does open data actually mean?

“Open data is available as freely as possible, as quickly as possible,” Asmi summarises the concept.

According to Asmi, this facilitates the work of researchers and increases the reliability of information. However, he points out that a great deal of data cannot be made openly available for reasons such as personal privacy, and current practices do not necessarily enable data to be made immediately available.

“The only way to produce reliable information is by ensuring that research is open and transparent at each stage of the process,” Asmi says.


In addition, making research data openly available may be of considerable benefit for research at a practical level.

“At the University of Helsinki’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences, we decided early on to share our observation data. In retrospect, the data has generated a vast number of publications, and the provision of open access has created many new research contacts,” Asmi notes.

The openness has also provided economic benefits and sparked new interest which, in turn, has led to new partnerships and the establishment of new research projects.

So why are some researchers hesitant about providing open access to their research data?

“With no shared approaches, some fear the misuse of their research data or worry that they will not be appropriately credited,” Asmi says.

Not a new phenomenon

Open science is often considered a new phenomenon – something that Asmi is quick to refute.

“For my doctoral dissertation, I read studies from the late 19th and early 20th century in which all the research data was published and openly available to anyone. With the increase in data based on measurements, the link between data and publications slowly began to erode after the 1930s,” Asmi says.

However, many are now returning to open data, and Asmi believes the change is here to stay.

Open data is actually  a form of social contract.

“Openness will definitely increase, and we must further develop our practices. In the case of publicly funded research, I think researchers have a moral obligation to provide open access to the data. I actually see this as a form of social contract,” Asmi states.

Asmi believes that openness can benefit not only researchers, but also the public.

“The air quality measurements of the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority are a good example. But open data should often be more user-friendly, so the public could interpret the data more easily,” Asmi notes.

Active efforts are being made to promote openness by establishing shared approaches.

The University of Helsinki has been very successful at supporting openness.

Asmi says that the University of Helsinki has been very successful at supporting openness, even when compared to its peer group.

“Openness and the scope of disciplines are what makes the University of Helsinki such a great research environment. Our strength lies in our multidisciplinary expertise,” Asmi stresses.


Learn about other uses of open data and open science on the University of Helsinki Open science website

Who is Ari Asmi?

Ari Asmi, Doctor of Philosophy, University of Helsinki

Does what?

Develops and examines research infrastructure activities. Plays a major role in international collaborative projects between research infrastructures and the development of their activities. Is involved in the ICOS infrastructure.




 @asmi_ari, @ICOS_RI