The Supercomputer

Associate Professor Ian Atkinson

Information Technology, School Of Business, Townsville Campus

Associate Professor Ian Atkinson

Associate Professor Ian Atkinson

The great strides in computing in the last four decades have provided Professor Ian Atkinson with an area of research that is assuming greater importance and application by the day. As the head of eResearch Centre within JCU, the core of his work is data – understanding how it is collected, stored, accessed, analysed and moved. In a world almost at the stage of producing more data than it can store, his work with supercomputing and eResearch has become an essential service.

Regional superpower

Professor Atkinson’s initial interest was structural chemistry. Observing interactions between systems down to a molecular level required sophisticated systems of data management. Technical computing became his next focus and his first role at JCU in Townsville (1997) was responsibility for the University’s high performance computing (or supercomputing) assets.

“At that time it was unusual for a regional university to have Supercomputing capability,” Professor Atkinson says, “but we were early adopters which was a good thing for me and the University.”

One of the main challenges of Supercomputing - then and now - is making those capacities available to an ever-increasing variety of users whose research interests require unique solutions for the processing, storage, retrieval and analysis of data. Cross-disciplinary data transfers and research provides a whole new set of challenges. Providing the expertise and data management to solve these challenges is at the centre of Professor Atkinson’s research.

“Being able to adapt what we were doing in Supercomputing to match the requirements of many different fields of enquiry is what has kept me here, it’s never boring!”

A gathering movement of sharing

Advances in information and communication technologies have also changed the way research is conducted, cracking the field of eResearch wide open.

“It’s a study in its own right,” Professor Atkinson says. “There’s a range of cultures to change, the legal implications of data sharing and it has changed the nature of publishing. There is a gathering movement to publish more data – data gatherers were previously unsung heroes but now their work has greater value.” In fact this has been given the title of the “fourth paradigm of science”, one of data-centric science.

Data visualisation also presents new possibilities for the presentation of data in ways that create new interpretive pathways. A current project uses 3D visualisation to analyse geo-spatial data sets. “The application can be very revealing – you can go over old data and discover new associations,” he says.

Sensing the world

Sensor networks are another research focus increasingly linking the physical world with the internet which Professor. Atkinson predicts will assume a much greater importance over the next decade. Gathering data from sensors to understand more about a remote location or system such as a marine or rainforest environment once again involves collecting and interpreting data while posing new and fascinating sets of technical issues.

Postgraduate projects range from pure enquiry to strongly focused commercially orientated research such as the inferencing of data through to managing very large data sets and applying Supercomputing to computationally complex problems.

While collaborative work or facilitating collaboration is integral to Professor. Atkinson’s field, he also believes an understanding of other disciplines is essential. “You have to understand other people’s research perspectives. If you want to apply ICT to a problem you really have to understand what the problem is.”