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Archive for February, 2013

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When more dimensions are added, food webs quickly grow more complex. (From Eklöf et al, 2013)

Ecosystems are a chaotic battle royale, with predators and prey, plants and animals, competitors and allies all fighting it out to eat or be eaten. But the food webs scientists typically put together are deceptively tidy diagrams, with simple arrows connecting diners to their natural food options. Ecologists readily admit that a true representation of an ecosystem’s network would be multi-dimensional, simultaneously taking into account multiple traits for each species involved. But just how many dimensions would such a model need to accurately depict the complexity of a large ecosystem? 10? 100? 1000?

In a new paper published this week in Ecology Letters, a team led by scientists at the Computation Institute and University of Chicago calculate that number – and find that it is surprisingly low. Using data collected by their co-authors on 200 different food webs, ranging from the Caribbean reef to New Zealand grasslands to an Arctic Ocean inlet, Anna Eklöf, Stefano Allesina and colleagues looked for the minimum number of dimensions and traits needed to accurately describe a food network. The findings may save ecologists time and effort in revealing the structure underlying an ecosystem, and also help scientists build computational models that can make predictions about an ecosystem’s future.

“To collect this kind of data takes ages to do,” said Eklöf. “If we can find some common rules about these networks, then we can apply them to larger networks. We can also learn about the function of networks, and what happens to networks when we disturb them in different ways.” (more…)

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r-BLOOMBERG4-large570A CITY PROJECT BATTLE ROYALE

As the keynote speaker at the Urban Sciences Research Coordination Network kickoff last Friday, the City of Chicago’s Brett Goldstein presented a blizzard of exciting city projects at various states of development. One slightly-under-wraps project Goldstein touched upon was the SmartData platform, an ambitious plan to craft a new tool for decision-making and city services out of the abundant raw material of city data. In collaboration with the Computation Institute and the Urban Center for Computation and Data, the city’s Innovation and Technology team hopes to create a tool that will analyze the city’s many large datasets in real time to help the city respond to challenges more quickly and efficiently, while providing frequently updated, useful information to its citizens.

Wednesday, that exciting new effort was announced as a finalist in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, a competition among ideas proposed by cities across the United States. As part of the judging, the public is invited to vote for their favorite project among the 20 finalists at the Huffington Post. We’re biased of course, but to help make the case for Chicago’s project, you can read more about the SmartData platform here, or watch a video about the concept featuring Mayor Rahm Emanuel below.

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Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

Photo by Lloyd DeGrane.

Cities draw their strength from community and diversity, when people from different backgrounds work together in close proximity on big problems. So to unleash the potential of city data, it only makes sense to replicate that mixing bowl effect in the context of research. To formally kick off the new Urban Sciences Research Coordination Network (USRCN), 80 experts representing a broad range of disciplinary knowledge met in downtown Chicago to forge new connections and grand ideas for projects that harness data for the benefit of the modern city.

Computer scientists, mathematicians, public health and education experts, architects, urban planners, social scientists, artists and more gathered inside the ballroom of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on February 15th with an ambitious goal: form a new interdisciplinary research community for data-driven urban science. Co-hosted by the Urban Center for Computation and Data (UrbanCCD) and the University of Chicago Urban Network and funded by the National Science Foundation, the event was meant as both social mixer and brainstorming session.

“We were asked by the NSF to create this research coordination network as a network of people, not computers,” said Charlie Catlett, director of UrbanCCD. “If you can put teams together that are interdisciplinary and also cut across these experience types, then we can begin to study the city in a way that none of us could do just as individuals or small groups.”

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698px-PC_remote_control_20101107“Software as a Service,” or SaaS, is a concept that has revolutionized the way people use their computers. Every time you check your e-mail on Gmail, stream a movie over Netflix or customize a radio station on Pandora, you’re accessing an SaaS through a browser that saves you the trouble of installing programs and storing data locally on your own computer. In an essay written for O’Reilly Radar, Renee DiResta argues for swapping out the first S in SaaS for “science,” creating online tools for scientists to outsource time-intensive and expensive processes such as specialized experiments and data sharing, storage and analysis.

Perhaps we can facilitate scientific progress by streamlining the process. Science as a service (SciAAS?) will enable researchers to save time and money without compromising quality. Making specialized resources and institutional expertise available for hire gives researchers more flexibility. Core facilities that own equipment can rent it out during down time, helping to reduce their own costs. The promise of science as a service is a future in which research is more efficient, creative, and collaborative.

In the comments to the article and on his blog, CI director Ian Foster responded, agreeing that science as a service has the power to free up researchers’ time and budget and talking about one of the CI’s own SciAAS initiatives:

This article echoes several themes that I speak to often. In my conception, every researcher is an entrepreneur, and researchers, like entrepreneurs, should be able to run their (virtual) operations from coffee shops. Science as a service frees researchers to work when and where they want, while also saving them time and money.

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Marius Stan.Untitled1THE CI’S MOST FAMOUS CAR WASH OWNER

A recurring theme of Breaking Bad is getting out of difficult situations with science. Yet, you still probably wouldn’t expect to run into a character from the hit TV show on the campus of Argonne National Laboratory or University of Chicago. But if you happen to spot a man who looks just like protagonist Walter White’s former boss at his car wash job, no need for a double take — you’re not losing your mind. Marius Stan, a Computation Institute Senior Fellow and Argonne scientist studying computational chemistry and physics, provides the memorable eyebrows and Romanian curses for the role of Bogdan, a character who has appeared in a handful of episodes of the AMC drug-trade drama.

This week in the Chicago Tribune, reporter Ted Gregory profiled Stan and told the story of how he got involved with the show when he lived in Albuquerque, before moving to Chicago. Stan might humbly list “Breaking Bad, Bogdan” below a computational microscope and a book about modeling and simulation in materials science on his CI web page. But his colleague, CI fellow Andrew Siegel, said most people at Argonne find his moonlighting career “extremely cool.”

“Everybody finds it hilarious and great. In science, you’re so uncool, at least in this country, and the world of acting is so opposite of that. It’s a funny convergence of things.”

THE MATH INSIDE ELECTRICAL OUTLETS

Electrical power grids present a complex and challenging mathematical problem, with questions of how to efficiently produce, store and distribute the energy. To study the mathematics behind tomorrow’s power lines, Argonne National Laboratory and Computation Institute scientists formed the Multifaceted Mathematics for Complex Energy Systems Project (M2ACS), which recently received a $17.5 million grant from the Department of Energy. The project will bring together experts from several different areas of mathematical study, including optimization, dynamical systems, uncertainty quantification, random processes, data analysis, discrete mathematics and linear algebra to find new techniques needed to drive next-generation “smart” power grids and other technologies.

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ModelHumans have a visual bias, even hundreds of thousands of years after our pattern recognition skills evolved due to prehistoric habits of hunting and predator avoidance. In a newspaper or a scientific article, a well-designed graphic or picture can often convey information more quickly and efficiently than raw data or a lengthy chunk of text. And as the era of data science is dawning, the interpretative role of visualization is more important than ever. It’s hard to even imagine the size of a petabyte of data, much less the complex analysis necessary to extract knowledge from the flood of information within.

Fortunately, scientists and engineers were studying this need for visualization long before Big Data became a buzzword. The Electronic Visualization Laboratory, housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been active in this field long enough to have done special effects work on the original Star Wars. EVL researchers have pioneered methods in computer animation, virtual reality and touchscreen displays, and adapted those technologies for use by scientists in academia and industry. But in EVL director Jason Leigh‘s talk at the University of Chicago Medical Center on January 29th, the killer app he focused the most on was almost as old as those hunter-gatherer ancestral humans: collaboration.

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