SPARC Portal Roadmap

The overall vision and primary goals of the SPARC Portal are to provide an open, sustainable online resource and infrastructure for autonomic neurosciences and bioelectronic medicine to the global scientific community and to foster collaboration. This broadening of scope represents a natural evolution from the first SPARC phase, when the SPARC Portal focused on facilitating the exploration and use of the NIH SPARC Program’s scientific outputs, which include data, computational models, analysis pipelines, maps, standards, knowledge management, methodologies, and tools.

Roadmap: Short Term (2023)

Functionality planned for roll out until the end of 2023

  • Harmonized and extended documentation
    • Extensive documentation of the Data Resource Center (DRC) resources
    • Application for Core Trust Seal
    • Clear messaging on the home page regarding functions and features available to SPARC users with links to tutorials
  • Community building
    • Revised About page
    • Metrics display on the SPARC Portal
  • Search and supporting infrastructure
    • Complex queries across data objects are supported (e.g., all samples collected using a particular protocol, or all images related to subjects from a particular strain across all of the SPARC efforts)
    • Hierarchical facets for anatomy
    • Improvements to faceted browse
  • Facilitation of collaborative work
    • Ability for the platform to identify users (will be leveraged later to facilitate messaging and other functionality)
    • Functionalities and standards for publishing and sharing data aggregations and explorable data analyses
  • Launch data-specific functionality directly from the SPARC Portal
  • SPARC Portal user login
    • Elaboration of user profile page
  • SPARC data submission
    • Formalization of process for non-SPARC investigators to submit data to the SPARC Portal
    • Increased automation of data and model submission
  • Tracking of provenance and change history for data and models
    • Robust concept will be defined for frequently evolving items such as computational model code and derived data
  • Query interface to review connections in SimpleSCKAN
  • Maps and scaffolds:
    • Understanding connectivity and physiological function by:
      • Displaying the downstream and upstream targets of all sensory, sympathetic and parasympathetic neurons
      • Linking to modeling and simulation
      • Improving exploration of segmentation and image data
      • Deploying a new modeling interface and the FC (functional connectivity) flatmap on the SPARC Portal
      • Ensuring synchronization of the content and display of anatomical connectivity (AC), FC and whole-body maps
      • Focusing on utility and usability of the AC and FC flatmaps and the whole-body scaffold maps by targeted user groups
      • Developing new vagus nerve 3D scaffolds for embedding data on the organization of vagus nerve fascicles
    • Enhancing microscopy imaging and data viewing tools by:
      • Augmenting the Biolucida architecture to optimize web browser data viewing support and enable better interoperability with other SPARC tools such as Pennsieve and SODA
      • Providing access to SPARC Neurolucida 360 software on the SPARC Portal to enable users to analyze microscopy images from existing SPARC datasets, regardless of their size and the computational power often required to run computationally-intensive automated tracing algorithms
        • Applying analysis software (Neurolucida Explorer) to exploit existing SPARC image segmentations for the analysis of reconstruction aspects not explored in the original publication and to generate a deeper understanding of the data on the SPARC Portal
        • Improve the processes around segmentation viewing, file storage, and discoverability on the SPARC Portal
  • API to enable developers to leverage the DRC infrastructure in their tools
    • Establishing of extensive APIs to all DRC components
    • Integration in a joint API and Python client
  • Prepare for new SPARC-funded projects
  • Composition, configuration, and launching of computational models directly from the SPARC Portal

Continuously ongoing activities will include

  • User support (e.g., via SPARC Portal Feedback form and Open Office Hours)
    • Continue to provide licenses of microscopy image analysis and segmentation software (Neurolucida 360, Neurolucida Explorer, Tissue Mapper, TissueMaker, Vesselucida 360, and Vesselucida Explorer) for SPARC researchers and the Phase II community
  • Community building
    • Success stories, PI video interviews
    • Webinars, office hours, fireside chats
    • Outreach at conferences (e.g., APS, IEEE NER, ISAN, and SfN)
    • Social media outreach
    • Promoting relevant events and news on the SPARC Portal
  • Search and supporting infrastructure
    • Meta-data annotation will be extended to the individual file level and to computational models
    • Meta-data will also include content describing data files, e.g., “voltage trace from a patch-clamp experiment”
  • Bridge the gap between experimental data collection and computational modeling
    • New functionality will be added on o²S²PARC, such as data-based model creation and model-based/closed-loop control

Roadmap: Longer Term (beyond 2023)

  • Support for SPARC Phase 2
    • The Reconstructing Vagal Anatomy (REVA) initiative is creating more precise and detailed maps of the human vagus nerve, a bioelectronic highway that carries two-way electrical signals between the brain and internal organs of the body
      • continue development of the SPARC Portal and associated tools to host and work with these data products
    • The VNS Endpoints from Standardized Parameters (VESPA) initiative is identifying the physiological effects of altering vagus nerve activity to discover how best to stimulate nerve fibers for specific therapeutic effects
      • continue development of the SPARC Portal and associated tools to host and work with these data products
    • The Human Open Research Neural Engineering Technologies (HORNET) initiative is developing open-source technologies and components needed to safely and effectively alter nerve function
      • support the design, safety and performance assessment and optimization, and the development of control strategies
  • Compatibility with other research initiatives
    • Harmonization with research produced by other initiatives will be achieved with an increasing number of repositories and standards
  • Search and supporting infrastructure
    • In the SPARC Portal, users will be able to combine searches based on maps (i.e., abstract or concrete representations of functional and anatomical relations) and graphs/ontologies (i.e., annotations that translate to unambiguous, standardized terminologies or represent relationships)
    • Given a particular entry on the SPARC Portal (e.g., dataset, image, etc.), users will have the ability to search the broader community by linking out to SciCrunch, PubMed, or other indexing services
  • Facilitation of collaborative work
    • Messaging and forum functionality will be provided for users to discuss different SPARC Portal entries (e.g., datasets, files, models, etc.)
    • Specialist users will be able to review datasets
  • Bridging the gap between experimental data collection and computational modeling
  • Ensuring reproducibility and FAIRness for data processing (e.g., shareable and explorable analyses, standardized machine learning)
  • Providing expert workflows in app-form for specialized applications (e.g., implant safety assessment)
  • Providing a page on the SPARC Portal that provides information about the DRC plans and actions in view of sustainability beyond SPARC funding, along with an associated mechanism for the community to offer feedback
  • Teaching
    • Adapt the SPARC Portal to support visualizations and interactions that are valuable for teaching
    • Support the creation of online teaching classes

Principal Portal Goals

The principal goals of the SPARC Portal are currently:

  1. Enable visitors to explore and discover autonomic neurosciences and bioelectronic medicine resources
  2. Provide information and insight about/into the peripheral nervous system and its physiological role
  3. Help find related/associated data, computational models, analysis functionality, and anatomical models
  4. Permit to perform in silico studies and computational data analyses
  5. Empower tool developers to exploit the SPARC DRC infrastructure
  6. Facilitate and foster collaboration between researchers
  7. Establish FAIRness and TRUSTworthiness for published Data/Models
  8. Serve as a gateway for SPARC communication and community building

Explore and Discover Autonomic Neurosciences and Bioelectronic Medicine Resources

Vision: The SPARC Portal permits visitors to explore and discover autonomic neurosciences and bioelectronic medicine resources.


  • Where suitable, the SPARC Portal makes use of dedicated viewers to inspect data without downloading it (e.g., image viewers for microscopy images)
  • Its robust search functionality and linking facilitate the discovery of related datasets and research
  • The anatomical maps offer powerful exploration and discovery of the autonomic nervous system
  • Finally, a focus on usability, visitor guidance, and documentation ensure that visitors can easily navigate and understand the site content

Information and Insight about/into the PNS and its Physiological Role

Vision: The SPARC Portal provides a user-friendly mechanism to explore how the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is structured, how organs are innervated, and how neuronal signaling propagates within the PNS and organs. This is achieved through consolidated and highly curated maps and computational models. The maps serve to visualize anatomical and functional relationships within the PNS. They can be used to discover SPARC Portal content and to combine content for further analysis (e.g., measurement data as input of a computational model/analysis, computational models that can be coupled, data that serves to validate/constrain a model).

Example: A user can select a specific branch of a particular nerve in the PNS. The SPARC Portal should provide information about the organs that are innervated by this specific nerve branch and how these organs might respond when the branch is stimulated. Where available, relevant simulation models that could predict this behavior are displayed.

Finding of Related/Associated Data, Computational Models, Analysis Functionality, and Anatomical Models

Vision: The SPARC Portal provides access to a large amount of experimental data (ephys, RNA-seq, histology, and much more), computational models, data processing functionality, viewers, and research tools and resources. Through curation and mapping, users can find related/associated data, computational models, analysis functionality, and anatomical models. Functional maps can be used to identify models and data that can be coupled, or to provide information about limitations of computational models, by highlighting which functional dependencies are not considered. The SPARC Portal is supported by the SPARC Knowledge Graph ensuring rich and meaningful linkages across SPARC products and broader knowledge about the autonomic nervous system.

When a user has selected a histological nerve cross-section image, the user should be offered opportunities to view it with a dedicated microscopy viewer, segment it using a machine-learning tool for nerve-cross section segmentation on the o²S²PARC simulation platform, or convert it into a computational model suitable for neural interface simulations. When a user augments datasets (e.g, by pulling together and establishing relationships between multiple datasets), the resulting views of the data can be stored on the SPARC Portal.

Performing In Silico Studies and Computational Data Analyses

Vision: The SPARC Portal hosts published computational models and studies, as well as explorable data analyses (e.g., as supplement to scientific publications). The data analyses can operate on aggregated data from different sources, and aggregations can be shared. Tools associated with the SPARC Portal, such as o²S²PARC, can be used to perform in silico studies, e.g., to evaluate and optimize neurostimulation implant safety and efficacy, predict their downstream therapeutic effects on organ physiology, investigate potential side-effects, or to develop (closed-loop) control strategies. More information on the In Silico Studies Roadmap can be found here. Selected simulations can even be launched directly from the SPARC Portal, and specialized workflows are available as easy-to-use apps.

Example: An app is offered that permits users to perform standardized implant safety assessments (e.g., with respect to tissue exposure to currents, tissue damage models, induced heating) in support of electroceuticals development (e.g., for bladder control), and computational modeling can be used to optimize and control stimulation parameters.

Empower Tool Developers to Exploit the SPARC DRC Infrastructure

Vision: Developers can access the power and wealth of SPARC DRC-created infrastructure programmatically to leverage it when creating valuable tools. An entire ecosystem of tools built on SPARC infrastructure is established and can be discovered through a corresponding page on the SPARC Portal. For that purpose, extensive API’s are established for all SPARC DRC] components, they are integrated and documented, and a corresponding Python client is established.

Example: A developer uses the SPARC DRC API to create a tool that facilitates the submission of ephys measurements on the Portal and automatically registers that data to the relevant scaffolds.

Facilitate Collaboration

Vision: A key strength of the online SPARC DRC infrastructure lies in facilitating collaborative work between researchers (SPARC-funded and other). The SPARC Portal currently supports this by sharing information (e.g., events, news, access to public datasets, and listing of projects and key stakeholders) and plans to expand this with future functionalities such as: discussion forums, ability to request access to embargoed SPARC datasets, enabling joint elaboration of computational models, helping to bridge the gap between experimental data collection and computational modeling, and extended standardization and curation.

Example: Through the SPARC Portal, users log in and initiate discussions about available resources within the SPARC ecosystem. They can rank datasets and simulation models, and reach out to the dataset owners to initiate a collaborative effort. Users might be able to submit announcements of events which will be listed and distributed to users who signed up to be continually informed.

FAIRness and TRUSTworthiness in Data/Model Publication (Metadata Annotation & Querying)

Vision: The FAIR principles stand for Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. SPARC is committed to ensuring FAIRness and trustworthiness, and the SPARC DRC maintains standards and harmonizes these with related standardization efforts. Furthermore, SPARC DRC provides an infrastructure that facilitates and encourages adherence to FAIRness and TRUSTworthiness. Currently, the SPARC Portal largely ensures FAIRness, mainly through the curation process, the publication process, mapping, and the design of the simulation framework. SPARC is applying for the Core Trust Seal as a sign of our commitment to being good stewards of the community’s data.

Examples: Some planned features to expand the FAIRness of SPARC data and resources include:

  • tracking the provenance and change history of (derived) data and models
  • support for quality assurance and trustworthiness in o²S²PARC (credibility assessment, verification & validation, functionality to promote the Ten Simple Rules)
  • an expanded integration knowledge management system powering search functionality
  • providing a “peer-review” process for data publication and enforcing FAIR data-standards (authors, license, doi, tags, changelog, etc.) as part of the publication processes

SPARC Communication and Community Building

Vision: The SPARC Portal serves as a gateway for SPARC internal and external communication, as well as community building.

Examples: The SPARC Portal is a centralized resource to:

  • disseminate information about the SPARC program (documentation, success stories), SPARC-relevant events (meetings, webinars, hackathons), and SPARC-related news
  • facilitate communication related to its content (e.g., forums, discussion boards, messaging)
  • provide links to related initiatives and resources beyond SPARC

The SPARC DRC supports compatibility with selected initiatives and resources.

Larger Vision

The above goals address SPARC-related activities. However, SPARC DRC members are passionate about supporting research endeavors beyond SPARC, particularly in ensuring data quality and research collaboration. Thus, the SPARC DRC also aims to:

  • Ensure FAIRness (e.g., through standards and curation, as well as quality assurance measures) and particularly also reproducible and extendable computational modeling and analysis
  • Provide an integrated picture that exposes relationships between different physiological functions, neural maps, measurement data, and computational models
  • Enable large-scale collaborative research
  • Facilitate running analyses on the available data and models and to share analyses and the resulting derived data
  • Permit sharing of established computational and experimental workflows created by experts