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Digital dynamos

10 November 2017

There’s nothing like the latest smartphone to get people thinking about what they want from their tech. Designers and developers everywhere are trying to anticipate our every digital need, while balancing more complex data, and more users demanding a smoother, intuitive experience.

Now, the same factors that are driving digital innovation in the tech industry are also changing the landscape of data-intensive science.

Except instead of worrying about facial recognition or getting the latest Snapchat filter just right, UK experts from STFC’s Scientific Computing Department (SCD) and Hartree Centre are helping researchers and companies around the world, to make and deliver amazing discoveries and improve our lives.

Here are just a few of the things they have been working on lately...

Thinking visually

People are visual creatures: between 30-40% of our brain is dedicated to processing visual information. So how data is presented matters – that’s why smartphone screens are getting larger and why user experience is big business. This is just as important for scientists as for the rest of us.

To improve our infrastructure, scientists need to be able to visualise hundreds of different data sources related to critical infrastructure – such as energy, transport, digital communications, water supply and flood protection.

This matters because it can make our infrastructure more resilient, and help us plan for natural disasters and extreme events: and this exactly what the Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure (DAFNI) is designed to do.


Bringing the world together

Working in digital disciplines often means working beyond the traditional boundaries of countries – something anyone who has ever had a video conference at 7.00 am can testify to.

If the UK are to continue playing a leading role in discoveries like the Higgs boson, collaborating with our colleagues internationally is vital. To that end, STFC’s SCD has worked with collaborators in around 36 countries this year alone, on a range of big science projects. They continue to contribute to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) Tier-1 Centre, in addition to developing and operating part of the global e-Infrastructure that enabled the successful search for the Higgs boson.

Serving their community

For many people working in tech, the only thing that really matters is their end user. Their experience, and the difference that software and hardware makes to them, is what it’s all about.

That’s especially true for the teams working in CoSeC – the Computational Science Centre for Research Communities. Their job is to help researchers, scientists and organisations do more and better science, by providing the software and the know-how needed to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Accelerating product development

The projects delivered through CoSeC also have applications for industry outside of the laboratories and facilities they were originally designed for.

Unilever are now discovering products much more quickly thanks to Hartree Centre experts. They used code developed for scientific communities and powerful supercomputers. By using high-performance computing to ‘pre-screen’ potential ingredients, Unilever can reduce the number of experiments needed, allowing innovative breakthroughs to happen faster.

Driving innovation

When it comes to digital, new hardware tends to drive the development of new software; before the era of the smart phone, there was no need for mobile apps.

It was a similar story for structural biologists at universities and national facilities such as the Diamond Light Source. They were using crystallography to generate vast amounts of data, but needed better ways to capture and use it: they had the hardware and the science, but were missing the software.

This matters because from the structure of molecules, biologists can learn a lot about what they do and how they work – and how they change in disease states, allowing us to treat them more effectively.

These biologists turned to SCD’s computational biologists, who created a software package that captured their data and improved analysis, while making the most of existing hardware and visualisation tools.

Opening the door to information and insight

In everyday life, data is being used for everything from helping us find a free train seat for the daily commute to ensuring we can watch something at the weekend.

So imagine what would happen if access to our growing wealth of scientific data was improved...rather than being hidden behind paywalls and journals, it would remove barriers to innovation and discovery, and open a world of possibility.

This is the goal of the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC). EOSC aims to enable access and the sharing of data between researchers. This project is still in its early stages; experts from STFC are leading the pilot project to set the projects scope and aims, and working to build the social and technological bridges needed to make this project a success.


With great power...

None of the innovations that we have seen in our tech at home or across our scientific facilities would be possible without massive increases in power at our fingertips. But it’s what this power is used for that really matters.

JASMIN is half supercomputer, and half data-centre, designed to meet the big data challenges of 21st century environmental science. It currently holds 20 petabytes of data – equivalent to 312,500 sixty-four gigabyte iPhones – 1,000 virtual machines and 6,000 computing cores, and is used by over 1,500 people.

This amazing machine makes it possible for researchers and industry to collaborate more easily, supporting organisations like the Met Office and the European Space Agency as they tackle big questions in environmental science.

The Centre for Environmental Data Analysis (CEDA), within RAL Space, and SCD are responsible for managing this globally unique platform.

The next tech wizards

Having the machines and the software to do this amazing work is one thing… having the experts who know how to use it is another. That’s why tech giants work so hard to attract the right people (just think of Google’s infamous interviews or Apple hiding a job advert in the code for their website). And in data-intensive science, the need for experts is growing.

Fortunately, the UK is particularly well-placed to meet this need. Thanks to an almost £10million investment, new Centres for Doctoral Training in data-intensive science will train the next generation of data experts. This work is supported STFC and by industrial partners – including Aviva, EDF Energy and Hewlett Packard.

Technology on a whole new level

It’s hard to predict where digital innovation will lead, but there is no doubt it will be shaped by both experts in data and applications working together. In scientific computing, this is taking the form of the Ada Lovelace Centre, a new hub for data-intensive research.

This cross-disciplinary, data-intensive science centre aims to harness the knowledge within SCD to continue delivering more effective research across large facilities, and harnessing it for academics and industry.

Improving all of our lives

Like other digital technologies, data-intensive science has a vast array of potential applications, including in healthcare. From attacking cancer cells to improving the hospital visits for young patients, the possibilities are endless.

For example, computational techniques can be used to identify potential drugs. Working with the Central Laser Facility, experts in SCD are working to identify anti-cancer drugs that can be used to efficiently attack cancer cells, but which are less toxic than conventional cancer therapies.

It can also be used to personalise medicine. Thanks to collaboration between the Hartree Centre and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, children and young people are receiving personalised healthcare and an enhanced patient experience.

They are using cognitive computing, in the form of IBM Watson, to understand how the hospital works and the information that patients need before they visit. By making hospital visits less scary for young patients and their parents through the use of avatars and apps, the hope is to make children happier and healthier.

Technology, data and data-intensive science are changing the way we interact and the world around us. But it’s making a difference to more than just mobile phones.

Teams within SCD and the Hartree Centre are using it to do amazing things, and the research they enable is being used to improve our lives in lots of different ways.

This is just a small snapshot of what they do – find out more and discover some of their other projects:

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000