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GODAN Summit: Can supercomputers and visualization help solve the global food crisis?

by Austin Keating

The first ever Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Summit taking place in New York this week has one major goal—to craft open data-driven solutions in the face of rising world hunger.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s plant biology department are two of 340 groups involved in the meeting. They are bringing three presenters to the Friday morning Plenary session: “Universities and the Open Data Revolution.” The presentation will stream live at 8:00 am ET / 7:00 am CT.

The incoming Chancellor of the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus Dr. Robert Jones and two other presenters affiliated with NCSA and the university will show global agriculture leaders how joining together various sources of data—often with supercomputing and scientific scientific visualization playing a key role—creates hunger-solving solutions.

“NCSA helps a variety of research areas experiment in digital environments. These virtual laboratories have a track record of converging disparate models and data into innovation,” said AJ Christensen, a presenter and a visualization programmer at NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory. “Visualization is a key component to an open data culture. It helps people digest key data points faster, and can reveal more.”

Christensen and Amy Marshall-Colón, an assistant professor of Plant Biology and NCSA Faculty Affiliate at the University of Illinois, will be presenting a NCSA-produced mini-documentary during their time at the conference:

According to the UN, by 2050 the world will need a projected 70-100 percent more food, and farmers have already plowed much of the productive land on Earth. Global yields need to be increased in innovative ways—and GODAN wants to gather all the necessary supplies for that innovation in an open space.

“We can use computer models to predict ways in which we can help plants improve yield and better use resources, but we are limited by access to global agriculture data,” Marshall-Colón said. “Open access to data will improve our current models and help achieve our goal of improve plant genetics.”

The idea is similar to NOAA’s weather database, although another example has already been started in crop sciences with the University of Illinois’ Crops in silico project—which both NCSA-affiliated presenters are part of, and Marshall-Colón co-leads. The project focuses on the U.S., and it’s highlighted in the micro-documentary.

With 3D reconstructions of plants integrated with up-to-date climate information (and other data), project members were able to find a way to optimize the way crop canopies grow to maximize the amount of sunlight the plant can take in. They then implemented those changes in field crops successfully.

To get to that stage however—and to reach findings they’re still chasing—members of the project created a synthesized repository that any researcher can access and use. The sharable framework makes disconnected computer models and data into modules, or pieces, through a suite of software and other tools.

Christensen and Marshall-Colón will draw on their experience with the project during the conference, to share what they’ve learned and grow the effort at a global scale.

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