“Big Data” for Science and Society Launch Goes Big!

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With the launch of the Big Data for Science and Society (BDSS) project, UKZN’s Big Data and Informatics’ Research Flagship plans to transform research by creating scientific and socio-economic impacts.

UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Professor Deresh Ramjugernath said: ‘We want to move into a more multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research space; breaking down silos and building large teams for research.’

Led by Professor Francesco Petruccione as Pro Vice-Chancellor, the Big Data and Informatics’ Research Flagship is one of four research flagships launched in 2018. Its role is to promote “big data” by being solidly grounded in the 4th Industrial Revolution. In line with its aims, it has already started to create monthly training workshops in analytics and “big data” for staff as well as running monthly seminars which include special guests who are experts in the field. ‘The transformation of research can only be achieved through the spirit of leaving an impact, and that involves introspectively challenging our own university so that we don’t become redundant,’ said Petruccione.

The BDSS project is led by three Principal Investigators, each representing their own field of study. They are Professor Kavilan Moodley (Astrophysics), Professor Maheshvari Naidu (Geospatial Humanities), and Professor Onisimo Mutanga (Earth Observation).

Moodley highlighted how the concept of “big data” works, saying: ‘For us to have access to “big data”, we have to work with such data ourselves,’ while Naidu focused on the impact they wanted the research to have on communities and societies they worked with. For Mutanga, the cross pollination of ideas was important. ‘In astrophysics, Moodley is looking up and I am looking down, yet we face common problems,’ he said.

Through its R9 million cash injection from UKZN, this project aims to increase the output and impact of big data. To achieve this, projects between disciplines and across tiers will be curated; creating a complex network of collaborations involving young researchers (PhD and postdocs); external stakeholders (with needed skills and resources) and a coherent set of activities.

Innovative research will also be implemented including:

  • The use of telescopes, such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), the Real-time Analysis known as HIRAX, and the Karoo Array Telescope known as MEERKAT, to extract big data in astrophysics;
  • A focus on GIS, data mining and spatial modelling by Geospatial Humanities to form an analysis of big data research; and
  • Wall-to-wall coverage and cloud computing services to provide a way to process big data within the sphere of earth observation

Inspired by “big data” and wanting to remain relevant within the 4th Industrial Revolution, UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science has launched a new undergraduate degree in Data Science which allows for computer science (involving coding) and statistics to combine enabling students to be well equipped for the modern era when they graduate.

Words: Hlengiwe Precious Khwela

Photograph: Albert Hirasen