Photo of Michael Boehm

Big data is the incredible flow of information that surrounds each of us, every day. “Big Data: Managing the Future’s Agriculture and Natural Resource Systems” is the title of this 2017 issue of Strategic Discussions for Nebraska.

The stories in this publication were written by students majoring in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Communication, based on interviews they conducted with University of Nebraska–Lincoln scientists who use the best-available, data-driven technologies in their research.

Big data tools identify patterns and habits, not only in research, but in manufacturing, logistics– even ordering items online. Computing technology has evolved, too; today’s cell phones have more computing power than NASA had when it conducted the Apollo missions.

Computing technology drives today’s precision agriculture, using unmanned aerial vehicles, robots and sensors to increase production efficiency and reduce water use. The health of people and animals is improved through new treatments discovered through research and analysis of research data. Cameras capture images every hour in the entire Platte River basin so scientists can learn about changes in the river and the water fowl that rely on it.

Everywhere we look, data is being collected and the tools and minds required to interpret the data are harnessing information that drives solutions. But technical solutions aren’t enough. We also have to understand what it means to be human– how we take this information and use it, ethically, to benefit the world. Sensors can tell us the context, but human ethics guides the use of the data for the common good.

At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, we’ve hired scientists in disciplines that represent the newest areas of research, all of whom rely on the massive amounts of data generated by the newest technologies. Some of these disciplines are genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics and proteomics. These “omics” specializations came along with modern molecular biology and research that has allowed us to sequence the entire DNA of a human or animal. We’re also hiring faculty members in bioinformatics– the science and the mathematics necessary to understand the stories data have to tell.

We’re encouraging collaborations across disciplines to generate new ideas that one scientist might not be able to find alone. A story in this publication features Yufeng Ge, an assistant profess or of biological systems engineering, and James Schnable, an assistant professor of agronomy and horticulture. They are collaborating on measuring the physical traits of crop varieties through imaging chambers at the Greenhouse Innovation Center on Nebraska Innovation Campus.

In this publication, you’ll find stories about our university’s scientists not only conducting research, but teaching students and extending research findings to people who can use it in Nebraska and around the world. After all, that is the spirit of the land-grant mission, established by the Morrill Act of 1862. It is as critical and relevant today as it was then.