A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Researcher Makes Complicated Big Data Simple to Use

March 14, 2013


By Colleen Kearney Rich

Chaowei (Phil) Yang

Chaowei (Phil) Yang

The next time you are enlarging a Google map or clicking on some other global positioning system technology, know that you have researchers such as Mason’s Chaowei (Phil) Yang to thank for such a convenience.

Yang is an architect of sorts, but instead of designing buildings, he is designing systems and creating algorithms that help computers organize and interpret big data in such a way that it is usable by others, especially the general public. In fact, one of his four patents involves the algorithm used to refresh and reposition online maps quickly as the user enlarges or shrinks it.

“We are taking data sets created by others and using them to create new tools that will be beneficial to industry,” says Yang. The list of “others” that work with Yang and his colleagues is long and impressive, incorporating many U.S. agencies, as well as international organizations.

Yang’s work focuses on using spatiotemporal principles, meaning time and space, to optimize computing infrastructure to support scientific discoveries and has been funded by such organizations as NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Federal Geographic Data Committee, among others.

“What I enjoy the most [about this type of work] is when a big or complex problem is finally solved through hard work and collaboration,” he says. “Working with others also places us in a better position to solve more problems.”

Since 2010, Yang has served as the chief architect on two NASA projects: Spatial Cloud Computing and Climate@Home. Spatial Cloud Computing is designed to build Cloud Computing platforms using spatiotemporal patterns of data, users, and problems to support NASA science discoveries and engineering development. Climate@Home is an initiative by NASA to create a virtual supercomputer to model climate. Not only are all of NASA’s 10 centers involved, but so are 13 federal agencies and numerous universities and organizations.

Developing the architecture for such a large-scale project isn’t as simple as building it. “We also have to make sure they can maintain the system, and we help them do pilot studies to test it,” he says.

A example from the SilvaCarbon website created by Mason researcher Chaowei Yang's graduate students.

A example from the SilvaCarbon website created by Mason researcher Chaowei Yang’s graduate students.

Here at Mason, Yang directs, with Mason colleague Paul Houser, the NASA/Mason Joint Center of Intelligent Spatial Computing (CISC) for Water/Energy Sciences. Simply put, intelligent spatial computing provides a variety of ways for scientists and other researchers to visualize and manipulate large amounts of data, saving time and resources and ultimately making discoveries and advances in the sciences more accessible. Therefore, Yang and the scientists and graduate students who work with him always have the end users in mind when developing a product or portal.

The joint center was established to respond to community needs and provide leading research and training on intelligent spatial computing internationally. In addition to the center’s partners within the United States, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, the center has partnered with a number of Chinese universities and the Heilongjiang Bureau of Surveying and Mapping, the National Geomatics Center of China, and the National Administration of Surveying, Mapping, and GeoInformation.

The center is extraordinarily busy. Yang estimates that there are approximately 30 projects going on at any time.

Among the projects completed by CISC is the very user-friendly SilvaCarbon web portal, which was mainly built by Mason students, according to Yang. The site helps pull together data—including satellite images—from many sources to help countries monitor their forest and terrestrial carbon. Although it is targeted to the world, support for the site comes from a host of U.S. agencies, including USAID and the Smithsonian Institution.

Last summer, Mason and CISC hosted a planning meeting for NSF’s Industry and University Cooperative Research (I/UCR) for spatiotemporal thinking, computing, and applications, which brought together about 50 participants from government agencies, companies, and associations to discuss establishing an industry/university cooperative research center. The cooperative will span three universities—Mason, Harvard, and University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB)—conduct innovation-focused and deliverable-oriented research with the goal of developing an infrastructure base for future scientific discoveries and engineering development.

According to Yang, this NSF cooperative places Mason as the domain leader for the next decades to come for spatiotemporal studies with impact to human knowledge and problem solving in the 21st century. “We are looking at the next generation [of this field],” says Yang. “This first phase will take place over the next five years.”

Collaborating with the top agencies in the world also has its advantages. “Our collaboration with NASA puts us in the national/international leadership position for geospatial computing and data handling,” he says. “The NASG collaboration puts Mason’s name across all provinces in China, which only a few universities have achieved.”


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