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Geospatial data project will let almost anyone put almost anything on the map

Purdue researchers and ITaP are embarking on a $4.5 million, four-year project to create a powerful Web-based system that will allow researchers worldwide to manage, curate, share, analyze and visualize geospatial data for purposes ranging from predicting damaging floods to projecting climate change effects on the poor.

The project funded by the National Science Foundation will build geospatial data hosting, processing and sharing capabilities into Purdue’s HUBzero platform. This should open the way for easy development of a variety of Web-enabled tools for probing and presenting geospatial data in ways that can, among other things, help policymakers address pressing issues in the U.S. and around the globe.

The geospatial data project stems from earlier, specialized projects involving HUBzero and geospatial data, such as; driNET, for research on the causes and effects of droughts; WaterHUB, for studying hydrology; and GEOSHARE, an international hub for research on agriculture, land use and the environment.

“We have developed many map-driven and sophisticated online tools for modeling and visualization of geospatial data, which typically require significant geographic information system and software expertise,” says Carol Song, the senior research scientist who leads the Scientific Solutions Group for ITaP Research Computing (RCAC). “In this project, we will be able to share what we have learned, expand on it and make it available to anyone through the HUBzero open source software.”

Song is the principal investigator for the project. ITaP researcher Larry Biehl, Venkatesh Merwade, associate professor of civil engineering, and Nelson Villoria, a research assistant professor at Purdue’s Center for Global Trade Analysis, are the co-principal investigators. Thomas Hertel, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural Economics and executive director of the Center for Global Trade Analysis, is a project adviser.

The project should open sophisticated geospatial data and analysis tools — many of them common to a geographic information system (GIS) — to almost anyone, anywhere and allow ready sharing of data and results, as well as collaboration among researchers whether on the same campus, across the country, or across the planet.

“I'm here at a first-class university, I have all the software I need and a fast Internet connection to download large amounts of data and I have the expertise to handle that data and if I don't have it, probably down the hall somebody has it,” Villoria says. “Not everyone is as fortunate. We’re doing something that will lower the barriers to using this sort of information.”

Geospatial data can include maps, aerial photos, satellite imagery, sensor output and almost anything able to be “georeferenced,” or located on a map, from field-level crop yields and local population densities to regional weather and climatological records and the flow of trade in specific commodities across national borders.

Mapping such data, particularly in layers that integrate information on an array of factors and can show how they may interact, is a powerful way for researchers to glean new and improved knowledge from data collections, as well as to explain the results to policymakers and the public.

“We don't use these data sets separately, we integrate them and sometimes integrating them needs a lot of computational power,” Merwade says. “We want to have tools where people can integrate multiple data sets in the way they want and extract information based on these multiple data sets.”

The project is funded through the NSF’s Data Infrastructure Building Blocks program. Several partners, from K-12 educators to large NSF projects, have signed on to beta test the new geospatial tools when they become available. The Purdue researchers will work with the Geography Educators Network of Indiana (GENI) to provide school students with engaging online activities that improve comprehension of geography, GIS, remote sensing and other geospatially related topics.

Merwade and Villoria also will mount test projects to demonstrate the power of a geospatial-capable hub.

In Merwade’s case, that involves building a hydrologic model of the entire Mississippi River Basin incorporating large amounts of data on factors such as weather, land use, topography, soil and more. When done, the tool should allow users to generate stream flow projections and predict when floods may occur anywhere in the Mississippi Basin, which encompasses all or parts of 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains.

Villoria will look at climate change impacts on poverty considering such factors as crop productivity, water availability, irrigation and deforestation.

“We want to tackle substantive policy issues, things that change the way people think and lead to policy actions, or at the very least inform the debate about policy,” Villoria says.

The new capabilities will be incorporated in the open source version of HUBzero, making them available to current hub owners or those who want to build a hub.

Originally developed by Purdue to power nanoHUB.org, HUBzero is a Web-based platform, or cyberinfrastructure, for scientific and other kinds of research and educational collaborations. A major HUBzero feature is its ability to make computational research tools, and visualization and analysis of results, easily available through a Web browser. HUBzero’s built-in social networking creates online communities in almost any field or subject matter and facilitates communication and collaboration, distribution of research results, training and education. The platform also offers a growing set of data management and interactive database capabilities and simplified access to high-performance and cloud computing hardware.

There are now more than 50 hubs based on HUBzero serving many areas of science, engineering and other fields, from nanotechnology, cancer treatment and advanced manufacturing to earthquake engineering, pharmaceutical and biofuels development and the bonds between human and companion animals.

Writer: Greg Kline, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-494-8167 (office), 765-426-8545 (mobile), gkline@purdue.edu

Last updated: Nov. 8, 2013