Why Focus on Big Data?

Ron Yoder portrait

Why Focus on Big Data?

Interview with Ron Yoder
By Shelby Andersen

Scientists have the ability to collect hundreds of data points in a single second with information from just one simple sensor. Multiply that times all kinds of sensors and all kinds of science and it’s easier to understand the challenges of what’s often called “big data.”

Science has evolved into the collection and statistical analysis of data that will help to solve big problems such as global food production and sustainability of natural resources, said Ron Yoder, associate vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. 

WHY BIG DATA?

Starting in the late 21st century, Yoder said, the world entered into what has been called the “digital age.” Yoder said entry into the digital age greatly expanded the capability to collect large data sets, but the concept of big data is more about complexity than it is about the size of the data set. “It’s about the ability to analyze those large data sets, including analytical techniques and methods that extract the desired information. That’s what big data is about.”

Analysis of data benefits Nebraska and Nebraskans, whether the information comes from sensors, genes, location systems or other sources, he said. “In the Great Plains region, those benefits can mean using the resources more efficiently and effectively to produce agricultural commodities and manage the great natural resources systems we have,” Yoder explained. “We’re only on the threshold of where we can go with understanding the data we collect and how we collect it.”

Soils and water are the fundamental resources for growing crops and animals, Yoder said, citing the Sandhills in central Nebraska as an example of a sensitive ecosystem that must be managed in a way that ensures its future.

“We want to ensure that in producing agricultural commodities in Nebraska, we’re doing that with the smallest environmental impact on the resources that we’ve been blessed with,” Yoder said.

“The capability to collect and analyze detailed information allows us to make better decisions and to manage better,” he said. “We can be much more effective in using the resources we have and can minimize the impact on the overall system in which we’re producing food.” For instance, in row crop agriculture, technology and data analysis have shown that crops can thrive using less water, pesticides and added nutrients, minimizing the inputs needed to produce crops. 

An example of an application of research, Yoder said, is a study that showed by simply placing each seed of corn perpendicular to the row at planting, yield can be increased by 14 percent.

NEW FACULTY, NEW SCIENCE

Yoder said today’s smartphones are thousands, if not millions of times more powerful than a computer of the 1970s. The ability to accomplish tasks computationally is where all the scientific disciplines are going, whether in the social sciences or hard sciences, he added. And that’s where it’s necessary to have people with specific skills, to analyze the data, find new ways to look at data and to find answers to questions no one had previously considered.

Because of this, the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources began a hiring initiative in 2012 in which new faculty members were hired over five years in key areas, many of which rely on data collection and analysis. 

“Having computational sciences as a central portion of who we are and what we do is key to maximizing our effectiveness,” Yoder said. “We are making wise investments in research and education.”

Scientists are working toward increasing efficiency in agricultural and natural resource systems, leading to the hiring of faculty members in six key areas: 

  • Computational sciences
  • Science literacy 
  • Stress biology
  • Healthy humans 
  • Healthy agricultural production and natural resource systems
  • Drivers of economic vitality for Nebraska

“We attempted to hire individuals who would fit into that idea of solving problems using a transdisciplinary approach,” Yoder said, which means building teams of researchers from multiple disciplines. These transdisciplinary partnerships will improve researchers’ abilities to ask questions and get better answers, extracting the most useful information from large data sets.

Scientists’ discoveries will require them to make these transdisciplinary partnerships. “If you do that around the world, you bring in different environments that people work in – different climates, different soils, different water resources – and you bring in the cultural aspect that maybe someone working in one location doesn’t think about,” Yoder said, particularly in the areas of health, environmental policy, and agriculture and natural resources. 

The hiring of new faculty members was funded by retirements of longtime faculty members, increased enrollment and updating budget priorities, Yoder said. 

THE LAND-GRANT MISSION

Land-grant universities were established by the Morrill Act of 1862, which set aside federal land for colleges that would educate people about agriculture and the mechanic arts. As Nebraska’s land-grant university, the university has since grown to include a wide range of degree programs.

Yoder oversees the daily operations of IANR, including nearly 40,000 acres of land across Nebraska; more than 1,600 faculty and staff members; IANR academics; and Nebraska Extension. The thousands of acres of university land are used for research, teaching and Extension, and provide access to the varied climate and topography across the state.

Yoder said the land-grant mission means serving Nebraskans. However, the research, teaching and Extension work has relevance to people all around the world. Nebraska’s soil types and climate compare to numerous other countries. These similarities allow for the exchange of information and development of new areas of the world for agricultural production.