Alex Vespignani with Dean J. Murray Gibson

Big Data, innovative research

by Greg St. Martin

In one sec­tion of Snell Library’s Dig­ital Media Com­mons on Monday after­noon, a large com­puter screen dis­played a daz­zling visu­al­iza­tion of a hypo­thet­ical out­break of a flu-​​like dis­ease orig­i­nating in Chicago. In another sec­tion of the room, vis­i­tors tested out an inter­ac­tive health coaching game designed to guide older adults through exer­cise rou­tines and pro­vide real-​​time feed­back. Else­where, dig­ital maps dis­played NASA satel­lite data used to detect trends in water avail­ability on a global scale.

These projects were among the many fea­tured at Northeastern’s sixth Pop Up Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion, where an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary group of fac­ulty and stu­dents pre­sented their inno­v­a­tive research that works with Big Data. The DMC served as a fit­ting host for the expo; located on Snell Library’s second floor, the cutting-​​edge work­space is a media lab and dig­ital cre­ativity center where stu­dents and fac­ulty can use a range of tech­nolo­gies such as new ani­ma­tion, audio and video editing, 3-​​D printing, and game-​​design software.

One area of the pop up lab fea­tured the work of net­work sci­en­tist Alessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics, and his team at Northeastern’s MoBS Lab. They have devel­oped a com­pu­ta­tional model for visu­al­izing the spread of dis­ease by com­bining real-​​world pop­u­la­tion and human mobility data with elab­o­rate models on dis­ease trans­mis­sion. In par­tic­ular, Vespignani’s team is using this approach to track the Ebola out­break in West Africa and pre­dict its poten­tial spread globally.

Sev­eral other projects fea­tured are part of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Net­works: the Viral Texts project, which seeks to dis­cover how par­tic­ular news sto­ries “went viral” in 19th-​​century news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, the Early Caribbean Dig­ital Archive; and the Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Dig­ital Archive project.

The event, titled “Aha! Making Sense from Big Data,” served as the latest install­ment of the Pop Up Open Lab series spon­sored by the Office of the Provost. Pre­vious events have fea­tured topics such as sus­tain­ability, the devel­op­ment of playable media, and per­sonal health tech­nolo­gies.

Other Big Data research fea­tured Monday at the event explores crit­ical urban infra­struc­ture sys­tems. Kris­tian Kloeckl, a new asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Art + Design and the School of Archi­tec­ture, is inter­ested in designing inter­ac­tive visu­al­iza­tions that allow people to explore cities through the eyes of data. He pre­sented work he’s done in col­lab­o­ra­tion with col­leagues at MIT to create a data plat­form and visu­al­iza­tions com­bining real-​​time data from many of Singapore’s urban sys­tems operators—transit, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, taxis, to name a few.

He said this data could be used to iden­tify where to add more bus routes between bustling transit sta­tions or to help taxi com­pa­nies iden­tify loca­tions where more dri­vers are typ­i­cally needed during intense rain­storms, for example.

It’s all about bringing decision-​​making for the city more in sync with how the city actu­ally behaves,” he said.

Dietmar Offen­huber, an assis­tant pro­fessor who holds joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties, show­cased two projects that involve using Big Data to visu­alize waste man­age­ment sys­tems in cities. In one project, he put GPS tracking devices on 3,000 pieces of trash from Seattle house­holds to map their move­ment over a two-​​month period. The other project took place in Brazil, where he used GPS data from trash col­lec­tors’ cell phones to map their col­lec­tion routes.

He said these projects help unveil the “invis­ible real­i­ties” of the urban land­scape and can help shed light on ways to make these sys­tems more effi­cient or orga­nized in entirely new ways that involve more stakeholders.

It’s about building bottom-​​up infor­ma­tion sys­tems for doc­u­menting waste man­age­ment,” Offen­huber said. “Glob­ally, one of the biggest prob­lems in waste man­age­ment is there’s hardly any data on it, and the same thing goes for other infra­struc­ture sys­tems as well.”

Originally published in [email protected] on October 28, 2014.

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