August 10, 2010

The Grid is for the Birds

Nicole Hemsoth

Supercomputers are being put to work for the sake of ornithologists and ecological researchers due to a new investment from the NSF toward a goal to create an animated map of global bird activity.

eBird, which is a database that stores the records of the millions (there were 10 million entered just this far into 2010 alone) of bird sightings around the world is now reaching the 48 million sighting mark, contributing to an enormous amount of data. These data alone represent staggering amounts of collected information from around the world but the task that lies ahead for the collection is also great.  As Steve Kelling, who runs the IT department for Cornell’s Ornithology Lab (which manages the project in conjunction with the Audubon Society) told the journal Nature, the problem is not necessarily with the amount of data that is currently being stored, but rather the “challenge now is to try to do something meaningful with all these data.”

The first step in analyzing the eBird data was made possible by a donation of 100,000 hours on the NSF’s TeraGrid Supercomputer. The project will take the large number of observations of each species recorded and will provide a worldwide view of the distribution, placement and migration or movement then place these patterns in the context of other species and global ecological trends. The project is indeed ambitious and will require that the computers “learn what kind of land cover, what timing pattern of greening and what human densities best predict bird presence, and generate a million more simulated observations for each species throughout the year…  the result is an animated map of bird movements.”

This ambitious project, with the help of the NSF and its supercomputer offering might also be aided by the birdwatchers themselves who, using a BOINC-like “cloud” of individual computers to process and parse the data during downtime, could aid in the overall time to realization of the bird map based on the millions of observations that have flooded in since the inception of the project.

Full story at Nature