Visualisation and making sense of big data, for society and industry – with STFC's Dr Erica Yang

30 November 2017

More data was created in the last two years than the previous 5,000 years of humanity. In fact, 2.5 billion gigabytes of new data is generated every day, and by the year 2020 it is estimated that about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet.

Ground breaking scientific research projects are generating more data than ever before – ‘big data’. The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest radio telescope, spanning from Australia to South Africa. It will generate so much data that we will have to stretch computing technology to its limits, needing a trillion times more computing power than was used to send people to the moon. The Large Hadron Collider’s computers store 15 petabytes of data every year– that’s 15,000 years’ worth of tunes!

For businesses large and small, big data has become a game changer, whether it’s in retail, financial services or manufacturing anything from a new shampoo to designing a new model of car. Thanks to big data manufacturers can explore next generation products today at a fraction of the time and cost. Service providers are predicting customer behaviour in a way that they have never done before and improving their customer experience. These are all elements required to maintain that edge in a competitive economic environment.

However, with all this data being generated, our ability to use it to identify and find real world solutions hinges on our ability to understand and interpret it effectively. Dr Erica Yang is Head of Visual Analytics and Imaging Systems at STFC’s Scientific Computing Department (SCD), and has led and contributed to a number of pioneering collaborative projects on distributed computing, data engineering, and visualisation. We caught up with her to find out how she first became involved in scientific computing and data visualisation, and what it’s like to be driving leading science projects that can make all the difference to how both society and industry can benefit from big data.


How and why did you first get into scientific computing?

My father was my inspiration – he was a talented engineer and I can clearly remember, at the age of seven, listening to his stories of how technologies and skills can transform people’s lives. It felt like a natural path for me to follow in his footsteps and choose a STEM subject. I gained a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from South China University of Technology before moving to the UK, where a master’s degree in high speed network and distributed systems followed by a PhD in Computer Science and then a Research Fellowship at the University of Leeds. But it was while I was working as an analyst programmer at the University of Oxford that I saw an opportunity to work at STFC. That was almost 11 years ago now, and I have rarely looked back since.


We’ve been hearing a lot about big data and data visualisation. As Head of Visual Analytics and Imaging Systems at STFC, tell us why it’s so important and what it means to society and industry?

Big data is transforming every aspect of our society, from scientific research in large world class laboratories to other industrial sectors which do not conventionally use computer technologies, such as construction engineering and agriculture. But the value of all this data is completely reliant on us having the skills and tools to interpret it effectively – particularly through visualisation; it’s a critical link between data and solutions. Capabilities in visual analytics are the key to gaining high throughput analytic insights from computer modelling, simulation and prediction. The sheer volume and complexity of the data available to us today means that we are depending more and more on cutting edge visualisation systems to make sense of it all and to make important decisions based on the data available to us, to provide solutions to real world challenges.


So visualisation is a critical factor in making sense of data. What is a typical project that you get involved with at STFC?

There’s no typical project, they’re all so varied. I have been really fortunate at STFC to work with both industry and leading international science laboratories, in the UK and overseas, that carry out research activities that have a solid root in real world science problems.

I currently manage a project, named ULTRA. ULTRA is a new system we have developed here at STFC that enables scientists to create a 3D reconstruction of a rotating object, using hundreds of thousands of digital images taken from all angles, in unprecedented resolution, at unprecedented speed. We tested the system in collaboration with STFC’s ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, whose giant microscopes enable scientists to see things at the atomic level. By sending image data to a high performance computer, having it reconstructed and sent back as a 3D image, we can see its internal and external structure in detail. The exciting part is that the ULTRA method can be used for a huge variety of industrial applications using tomography imaging techniques, such as to visualise how batteries in mobile phones or electric cars behave under different conditions to improve battery efficiency and lifetime, and that’s just one example.

Working with industry is something I also enjoy. Recently I worked on a project, SMART, during which we used high throughput data analytical expertise that we have developed here at RAL to help Highways England improve the efficiency of road network maintenance in the UK – something of benefit to us all I think!


Fantastic, so there’s real benefit to UK industry and society. What’s the most impactful project you have worked on to date?

We are in the early stages of a four year project named DAFNI (Data and Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure), a £8 million investment funded by Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) via Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC). We are developing software for a powerful computer system that will not only enhance the readiness of infrastructure system research methodologies for real-world challenges at scale but also improve the UK’s resilience to extreme events, such as flooding and power outages, which can cost the UK hundreds of millions of pounds.

It’s part of £138 million Government-funded collaborative project called UKCRIC which will see state-of-the-art new research capabilities established at 14 universities. These facilities will provide essential services for advanced research into future infrastructure needs of our society, such as energy, transport, digital communications, water supply, flood protection, and wastewater and solid waste collection, treatment and disposal.

In SCD we’ll be designing and developing DAFNI at RAL over the next four years, and will provide access to massive secure data storage, fast computer performance and the next generation in infrastructure system visualisation. The future of the UK economy, society and environment depends on the right choices being made for energy and transport systems, digital communications, water supply and flood risk management. DAFNI will provide researchers and decision makers with unique and crucial capabilities in the UK to analyse system performance and make wise investments for the nation and globally. Over the course of the project we’ll bringing together business, government bodies and research organisations to collaboratively deliver this important national facility to underpin the future infrastructure growth of this country and to improve the global competitiveness of UK’s infrastructure system research capability.


How does it feel to work on such ground-breaking projects?

I feel very privileged to be paid to do what I love! During my time at STFC one of the most useful skills I have gained is a logical and practical approach to problem solving. I get real job satisfaction from combining this with my specialist computing skills to identify a real-world problem, to translate and to further break it down to tangible technical problems, and lead technical solutions in a collaborative environment. I love the interdisciplinary nature of my role and am excited by all the great work that SCD are doing at STFC for the nation.


What are your aspirations for the future?

I’d like to take up more opportunities to share my enthusiasm and insights for scientific computing at science engagement events so that the practical importance of the subject can be better understood by the policy makers and the benefits of science advancements in society can be better demonstrated to the citizens. However, communicating the importance of scientific computing can sometimes be a challenge!

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