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Missouri, Illinois geospatial researchers to work together on supercomputer

The nearly 90,000 square-foot facility in Illinois will house the geospatial group's computer.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications
The Taylor Geospatial Institute's computer will be housed at the National Petascale Computing Facility at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which contains other high-performance computers.

Students and researchers at St. Louis University, Harris-Stowe State University and Missouri S&T will soon run huge datasets at a powerful computer in Illinois.

The National Science Foundation awarded the Taylor Geospatial Institute — a group of eight institutions in Missouri and Illinois — $1 million to install the new high-performance computing system at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, one of the group’s member universities.

The supercomputer will be able to run global datasets for thousands of students and faculty who specialize in geospatial science, a field that combines geography, computing, sociology and other disciplines.

Finding solutions to climate change, food insecurity and other large-scale problems requires huge amounts of computing power, said Vasit Sagan, a SLU professor and the institute’s acting director.

“All of those big, grand societal challenges intertwine, they’re interconnected, they require global datasets and analytics machine learning AI at scale,” he said. “That’s a massive, massive amount of datasets, and those datasets have to be processed in a way where we can extract useful information to make decisions.”

For example, researchers could study millions of aerial drone photos, combine them with weather data and make long-term predictions about crop viability, he said.

“We can’t do that with desktop machines or regular computers,” Sagan said. Geospatial data sometimes relies heavily on pictures, which require a lot of computing power to analyze.

The device will be housed at a nearly 90,000-square-foot facility at U of I that contains other high-performance computers. Sagan said there are plans to install a similar computer in St. Louis.

Although the computer will be housed in Illinois, its fast networking capabilities will allow members of the institute, which also includes the University of Missouri’s St. Louis and Columbia campuses, Washington University and the Danforth Plant Science Center, to work together on projects.

The computer is one of the largest of its kind at any U.S. college campus, said Bill Kramer, a professor at U of I and a member of the Taylor Institute’s research computing council.

“So it’s really the fusing of all this data from disparate sources that allow new insights to be drawn,” he said. "I think that’s really the great potential that [the project] will have, not just for the research and workforce development for students but for people who are living in the areas — the Midwest areas — for learning new things that will help make everybody’s life better.”

Kramer said data computing on a similar device during the coronavirus pandemic found connections between race, disease and hospitalizations that had previously been hidden from scientists.

Sagan and Kramer said the group couldn’t have so quickly secured the funding for the computer if it hadn’t worked collaboratively. The institute got its start in the spring and just months later received the grant.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge 

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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