UKZN has invested just over R9 million to kickstart the Big Data for Science and Society (BDSS) Flagship Project – one of three such projects to receive financial backing from the programme.
The Research Flagship Programme concentrates on four broad areas: Social Cohesion, African Health, Big Data and Informatics, and African Cities of the Future.
UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Professor Deresh Ramjugernath emphasised the purpose of the Flagship Programme was to ‘promote research that has socio-economic impact and relevance to society and UKZN stakeholders, with the emphasis being on projects which are impactful, implementable and spur economic growth and social upliftment.’
The BDSS Project will support this mission through multi-disciplinary, cross-flagship, and cross-college collaboration in big data research that will have a significant scientific and social impact. The benefits of the cross-disciplinary approach include leveraging big data expertise to advance University-wide big data research projects in disciplines where large datasets currently exist but are not being fully exploited.
Three Principal Investigators (PIs) will lead the flagship project. They are Professor Kavilan Moodley – Astrophysics; Professor Maheshvari Naidu – Geospatial Humanities, and Professor Onisimo Mutanga – Earth Observation. In addition, the project has a number of Co-Investigators (Co-Is) from the fields of computer science and computer engineering, physics, statistics, psychology, management and information systems, and information and communication services.
The BDSS team comprises members from three Colleges: the College of Law and Management Studies, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, and the College of Humanities.
The project will deploy interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary data-driven techniques that will blur the boundaries between disciplines resulting in scientific and societal benefits spanning a wide variety of topics ranging from dark energy, to climate change and urbanisation, to mobility and migration.
Professor in Anthropology, Academic Leader of Research in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and PI on the BDSS project, Professor Maheshvari Naidu, highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of the BDSS Flagship project. ‘This particular Flagship Project cements meaningful collaboration among a wide spectrum of disciplines. It’s particularly exciting for aspects of what can be described as computational social sciences,’ said Naidu.
‘One of the initiatives will be to work with colleagues from Physics and Computer Science to explore machine learning (ML) tools in the context of social science narrative data. The aim is to work towards a model that is adapted to heterogeneous and unstructured social science textual data. This kind of work will, in turn, allow social scientists to probe social science issues on a scale not imaginable in the past in the context of ML, Geographic Information System (GIS) and data mining,’ she said.
Innovative research in the BDSS flagship project will include:
Associate Professor in Astrophysics at UKZN, HIRAX PI and PI on the project, Professor Kavilan Moodley, extolled the benefits of this substantial project. ‘The BDSS flagship project will support big data research in a number of high-profile astronomy projects that seek to uncover the secrets of the universe. New techniques developed for these projects will also be applied to big datasets in other disciplines, resulting in important scientific and societal advances,’ said Moodley.
The scientific and socio-economic impact of this research will be magnified through collaboration with a strategic group of partners who will enable project sustainability and broaden the impact of programme outputs. These partnerships and key links include national government organisations such as the National Research Foundation, South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and South African National Parks. These organisations will support big data research in a multitude of topics and disciplines such as radio astronomy, biodiversity, land use planning and management, and wildlife management.
There will also be partnerships with local government through shared collaborative centres that will promote human capital development through big data innovations and technology spin-offs into industry. BDSS will also work with a number of multi-disciplinary research centres including the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research, the Astrophysics Research Centre, and the UKZN-based Andrew Mellon funded Spatial Humanities Project. These research centres provide data processing, ML, and AI expertise and linkages with governments and end users.
Finally, the project boasts a growing number of international partners that currently span nine institutions in six different countries.
Professor in Ecological Remote Sensing and GIS at UKZN, the SA Research Chairs’ Initiative Chair in Land use Planning and Management and project PI, Professor Onisimo Mutanga, said: ‘The 4th industrial revolution big data research direction opens up avenues to integrating rem
ote sensing data, advanced climate information, crop/agro hydrological models and machine learning tools for early warning systems on environmental perturbations. This makes informed decisions on climate risk and adaptive land use management.’
In addition to the societal and scientific impacts resulting from the research itself, the flagship’s projects are also geared at developing local staff and students. BDSS will focus on equity and gender transformation of students, postdoctoral fellows and senior researchers, and support the funding of additional postdoctoral fellows and graduate students to work together across disciplines and with the project’s many external partners. This cross-disciplinary co-supervision and collaboration model will promote skills development in both big data techniques and their application across disciplines. The training of transdisciplinary PhD-level students and postdoctoral fellows will have a long-term impact on society by boosting student entrepreneurship, increasing job growth and raising the local and national gross domestic product.
Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer and Carolyn Crichton