St. Olaf College | News

New network will give St. Olaf researchers a ‘Big Data’ boost

St. Olaf students Alex Everhart ’15 (second from left) and Lacey Etzkorn ’15 (third from right) are working with faculty members Ashley Hodgson (far right) and Jessica Musselman (far left) to analyze hospital data. They are one of several research teams on campus that will benefit from a tenfold increase in the college’s data transfer capacity. Professor of Statistics Julie Legler (second from right) and Director of Information Systems Craig Rice received a grant to fund the enhancements to the college’s cyberinfrastructure.

A new grant from the National Science Foundation will fund enhancements in St. Olaf College’s cyberinfrastructure.

St. Olaf Professor of Statistics Julie Legler and Director of Information Systems Craig Rice will utilize the $327,640 grant to make a tenfold increase in the college’s data transfer capacity, an upgrade that anticipates the steady integration of Big Data usage into St. Olaf’s undergraduate research training.

“St. Olaf students will be getting incredible experience in Big Data analysis,” Legler says. “There are not a lot of liberal arts schools with this data capacity.”

Faster access to data
“Big Data,” a term that has generated a lot of media buzz recently, encompasses all data so large that they are difficult to process using traditional database methods.

Large data sets can take days to download on a conventional computer network, but with St. Olaf’s increased data processing speed, these data sets could be available in just minutes.

“With this new upgrade, students and faculty will have faster access to large amounts of data, which they will be able to work with and pass around more efficiently,” says Rice.

Enhancing research
Several St. Olaf research projects will benefit from the cyberinfrastructure enhancement — including investigations led by Assistant Professor of Economics Ashley Hodgson and Professor Emeritus of Physics Robert Jacobel.

Hodgson is working to identify chronic medical conditions that contribute to the rising cost of hospital treatment. To achieve this, she and a team of undergraduate researchers are analyzing a data set that includes all discharges from every California hospital from 1994 until 2011, a large data set that will be more easily accessible with St. Olaf’s faster data processing speed.

Jacobel heads a research group that examines how Earth’s ice masses respond to climate change. Jacobel and his team use high-resolution images to construct digital elevation models of ice masses, which they can compare over time to measure ice gain or loss.

High-resolution imagery of Antarctica and Greenland is imperative to Jacobel’s research, but each image can take days to download. With St. Olaf’s new network in place, Jacobel’s team will be able to download images more efficiently, and expand their study to a much larger geographic area.

“These technology enhancements take St. Olaf to the next level of scope with Big Data,” Rice says. “I’m excited to see what we can accomplish with the new data network in place.”