American Society of Agronomy: Bringing Information Management and Search Back In-House

Mar 23, 2012

March 2012 Issue

Article ImageCompany: American Society of Agronomy
Headquartered in Madison, Wis., the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) is a nonprofit, international scientific society dedicated to research and policy regarding the conservation and wise use of natural resources in the production of food, fuel, feed, and fiber crops. The ASA provides publications including society journals, recognition and awards, placement service, certification programs, meetings, and student activities. The ASA is also closely associated with the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America.

Business Challenge:
The ASA has been around for more than 100 years and publishes several different peer-reviewed journals as well as books, which means that its library is quite substantial. In order to give its members access to this plethora of information online, the library had been hosted by a third-party vendor. Unfortunately, this made it difficult to manage the content the way the ASA wanted within the vendor's capabilities while staying within the organization's budget. It needed a cost-effective way to house, manage, and control all of this content to fulfill the growing and evolving needs of its members, which included web and mobile access to information in the field.

Vendors of Choice: MarkLogic
Operating for about a decade, MarkLogic is a Silicon Valley enterprise software company that provides complex data solutions to the public sector, as well as to hundreds of businesses in areas such as publishing, healthcare, and the financial sector. MarkLogic's goal is to assist forward-thinking organizations in managing, organizing, and analyzing their Big Data through its software applications in real time.

The Problem in Depth

Agronomy, the science and technology of the production and usage of plants for food, fuel, fiber, feed, and reclamation, is a timely and hot area of science today that affects each and every one of us. It involves plant genetics, physiology, soil science, meteorology, chemistry, economics, ecology, earth science, and more. Today, agronomists are heavily involved with food production issues, conservation, producing energy from plants, and ensuring the safety of the environment through the agriculture process. With unprecedented population growth and subsequent increased demand on our plant resources, agronomy is a growing field in which research is constantly being conducted. One can imagine that, with 100 years of existence and the amount of research currently being published, the ASA has built up quite the library of journal articles over the past century.

While it is challenging enough to keep all of this information organized in hard-copy form, making it available digitally for ASA members is even more challenging. ASA's literature is the organization's lifeblood that not only disseminates the organization's message but also accounts for a substantial portion of its income.

ASA had been using a third-party vendor to house and manage this information. However, the situation was less than ideal. The organization was limited by what it could do with the data -- how it could manage it, use it, search it, and organize and access it. This was due partially to the vendor's limitations and partly to budget restraints. As a nonprofit, the ASA needs to use its resources wisely. Its technology costs were consuming a great deal of its budget. Spending a lot of money on its epublishing platform did not make sense if a better solution could be found.

"There is not much out there for in-house control," explains Ian Popkewitz, director of IT and operations for ASA. "We looked at other third-party vendors, but none really matched what we wanted to be able to do." ASA also looked at open source technology as a possible low-cost solution but eliminated it when it became clear that it would likely require substantial amounts of services and consulting, with no guarantee of support when it was needed most. ASA needed a solution that would give it in-house control of and easy access to its plethora of data that worked with its nonprofit budget.

The Solution

In the end, ASA opted to go with MarkLogic and its customized platform for data management. Unlike many third-party vendors, MarkLogic is a content management solution that allows its clients, such as ASA, to efficiently and economically manage their data in-house.

Different from traditional data management, where the data is shaped and tweaked to fit an application, the platform is built around a common repository for data, rather than reformatting the data to fit the vendor's already-existing platform. This is because MarkLogic has the capability to recognize components of unstructured information such as images, words, numbers, and video regardless of the underlying format. This schema-agnostic ability drastically reduces design time with MarkLogic compared to more traditional relational databases.

"This approach also makes it easy to build applications off of it -- you can combine, recombine, search, and enhance the data more easily," says David Gorbet, VP of product strategy for MarkLogic. "It encourages rapid development because you don't have to keep going back to the data model."

MarkLogic's capabilities allowed the American Society of Agronomy to "get at" and use its data quickly. In the 1.5 years that ASA has been working with MarkLogic, it has completed Phase 1 of the project by incorporating its journals, and it is now in Phase 2. "We started with seven scholarly, peer-reviewed journals, then ebooks, and now we are creating an elibrary -- anything that would be useful to those in the field of agronomy," Popkewitz shares.

New data is uploaded nightly, and as the journal is peer-reviewed, content is controlled by ASA editors. With the new platform, once a journal article is reviewed, approved, and uploaded, the author has the ability to add supplemental materials such as spreadsheets and YouTube videos.

Like all new technology implementations, ASA and MarkLogic had their challenges. One thing that helped both sides avoid unnecessary obstacles was off-site training with MarkLogic. This helped to ensure that everyone was on the same page. However, even the best planning does not eliminate all challenges. The biggest issue that ASA and MarkLogic experienced had to do with the proper display of charts, tables, and figures. Obviously, if data in such materials does not display properly, they are useless. "We came to a good solution, though," Popkewitz says. "It took time, but MarkLogic really stuck with it to make sure it happened the right way."

ASA not only used MarkLogic to assist in rebuilding its epublishing web application, but in November 2011, the organization made its elibrary available via a new mobile app called MySci Pubs, which is available on iTunes, in the Android Market, and in BlackBerry's App World -- really taking agronomy publications to the field for ASA's journal subscribers and nonsubscribers alike.

The Outcome

ASA did find the cost-effective, in-house control of its vast amount of data that it was looking for. It is anticipated that MarkLogic will save the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in the long term, while providing new sources of revenue.

With the new platform, ASA can market and sell individual articles rather than forcing new users to purchase entire journals or subscriptions, which they may not be prepared to do. In addition, ASA can expand its scope by bringing organizations with similar missions onto the epublishing platform, creating a greater network and potentially generating additional revenue by acting as an umbrella vendor.