The potential for model–data synthesis is growing in importance as we enter an era of ‘big data’, greater connectivity and faster computation. Realizing this potential requires that the research community broaden its perspective about how and why they interact with models. Models can be viewed as scaffolds that allow data at different scales to inform each other through our understanding of underlying processes. Perceptions of relevance, accessibility and informatics are presented as the primary barriers to broader adoption of models by the community, while an inability to fully utilize the breadth of expertise and data from the community is a primary barrier to model improvement. Overall, we promote a community-based paradigm to model–data synthesis and highlight some of the tools and techniques that facilitate this approach. Scientific workflows address critical informatics issues in transparency, repeatability and automation, while intuitive, flexible web-based interfaces make running and visualizing models more accessible. Bayesian statistics provides powerful tools for assimilating a diversity of data types and for the analysis of uncertainty. Uncertainty analyses enable new measurements to target those processes most limiting our predictive ability. Moving forward, tools for information management and data assimilation need to be improved and made more accessible.