The university’s Information Technology (IT) department is actively working with researchers to find new opportunities and innovative solutions for challenges experienced in the area of data-driven research.  Eish! spoke to Anelda van der Walt, eResearch consultant, about the NWU’s newest and most exciting big data initiatives

Q:  The NWU has hosted two strategic meetings that focused on big data* initiatives. Tell us more about these.

A: The aim of the meetings, which were held in February, was to enlighten researchers about the many possibilities associated with big data technologies and capacity building. These opportunities pertain specifically to the African Research Cloud and the Inter University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA). The meetings gave the researchers who attended insight into how they could become involved with and benefit from big data initiatives. The first meeting concentrated mainly on the big data initiatives and challenges in physics, while the second meeting involved other disciplines, including humanities and sciences.


The speakers were Prof Russ Taylor, who currently holds a joint research chair in radio astronomy at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and Prof Rob Simmonds, associate director of New Technologies at the IDIA.


The meetings were arranged by Prof Frikkie van Niekerk, the NWU’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and technology.


Q: How is the NWU involved with IDIA and what is the purpose of the institute?

A: The NWU is a founding partner of IDIA. The institute is a partnership of South African universities and industries and was specifically created to tackle the challenge of the new era of big data in astronomy. Although astronomy is spearheading developments in IDIA, other research domains such as bioinformatics are benefiting directly from the initiative as well.

Current partners include the NWU, UCT, UWC, the University of Pretoria and most recently SAP Software Solutions.


The purpose of IDIA is to bring together researchers in astronomy, computer science, statistics, high performance computing, other research domains and eResearch technologies to create infrastructure and data science capacity and solutions.


Q: What are some of the other big data initiatives that the NWU is currently involved in or associated with?

A:  The NWU is involved in many big data and data science related activities. The ones mentioned here are only a few of the very exciting initiatives and projects that will take the NWU to great levels of success in the data-driven world.


On the hardware front, the NWU is currently helping researchers to access national platforms such as the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC), while also upgrading the NWU’s high-performance computing platform and the African Research Cloud.


The African Research Cloud is a research partnership between the NWU and UCT, with other universities also preparing to join. It provides a cloud-based storage and analysis platform that the partner institutions host.


Exciting capacity-building initiatives include the Software and Data Carpentry workshops and the CODATA-RDA Research Data Science Summer School. Young and established researchers of the NWU attended these events.


The NWU is also a consortium member of the National E-Science Postgraduate Teaching and Training Platform (NEPTTP). The NEPTTP is a master’s programme that will help students build data science capacity with application in fields as diverse as finance, agriculture, genomics, social sciences, digital humanities and more.


Q: How can researchers become involved in these and other big data initiatives of the NWU?

A: They are welcome to email eresearch@nwu.ac.za. We will advise them according to their specific needs. They can also follow @NWU_eResearch on Twitter to learn more about the newest developments and initiatives.


* Big data refers to extremely large data sets that are compiled during research. This data is often analysed to determine trends and patterns.