NEES making a big impact with big data

What does a dedicated vision, lots of hard work, a strong team and a million files of data equal? For Thomas Hacker, it equals gratifying success that could one day result in improved construction and design techniques for stronger, more disaster-proof buildings.

Hacker, associate professor of computer and information technology, is one of the co-principal investigators of a $105 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to a Purdue-led team to serve as headquarters for the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, or NEES. The primary goal of the center is to advance research and education to reduce the loss of life from earthquakes. The NEEScomm team (which stands for NEES Community and Communications) includes partners from Purdue and several other universities.

The grant, awarded in 2009, was the biggest in Purdue history. In a little more than two years, there has been a lot of progress on the project. The most tangible result of the team’s work has been the creation of the NEEShub — a cyberinfrastructure based on HUBzero technology — that brings data, academic papers, theses, images, experiments, videos and other information on earthquake research into one “hub” that researchers can easily access.

“There is a growing recognition of the importance of that data and the need to facilitate access to the data and to visualize it,” Hacker said. “We’re now moving from the petascale to the exascale, and we are working to couple computing to NEES data to support new ways of processing and using all of that data. We are working to enhance research in the earthquake community.”

Hacker, who is co-leader for information technology for NEES, was key in the transition of NEES cyberinfrastructure and data from the San Diego Supercomputer Center to Purdue. Since Purdue began managing the NEEShub, the number of users and files uploaded has dramatically increased. There are now more than 21,000 users from 83 countries and about a million files on earthquake data and research. The data and research in the hub dates from the very recent to some from the mid-1970s.

An important component of the NEES legacy is the large number of researchers who received their Ph.D.s through work on NEES research. Data indicates that about 560 students have been trained through NEES, and of those, 191 have been doctoral-level students.

“Our goal is to continue to engage more practitioners and become the first source of choice among researchers,” Hacker said. “We want to push the boundaries of data curation.”

The “project warehouse” section of the NEEShub features detailed information about a project, including the principal investigators, other team members, when it was conducted, the facility where it was conducted, where the findings have been published, the sponsor, the equipment used, detailed experimental data and other important information.

A unique feature of the NEEShub is the inDEED tool, which stands for interactive Display for Earthquake Engineering Data. This offers NEEShub researchers a way to process, visualize, analyze and compare their experimental and numerical earthquake simulation data. inDEED can also be used by the NEES research community and other NEEShub users to access the earthquake data archived in the NEES project warehouse for processing, visualization and analysis.

For Hacker, being part of this project has been rewarding.

“It is personally gratifying to serve the needs of the science and engineering community,” he says. “It’s reinforced the belief I have that the use of industry-standard software development practices, cyberinfrastructure and high-performance computing capabilities can make a big impact.  We have built a remarkable NEES information technology team who is helping to achieve the goals of the project. Ultimately, I’d like to see changes in building codes as a result of some of the data we’re managing and helping to share with researchers.”

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