NERC invests £4.6 million in big data

6 February 2014

The Minister for Universities & Science, David Willetts, today announced £4·6 million of new NERC investment in 24 projects that will let the UK research community take advantage of existing environmental data for science and impact.

The Big Data Capital Call is one of several actions taken by NERC to help the scientific community improve understanding of environmental data, and decision makers to make better use of the existing science.

In a speech at the High Performance Computing & Big Data Conference Mr Willetts outlined what steps are being taken to strengthen the UK's competitive advantage in Big Data.

Minister for universities & science, David Willetts, said:

Making the most of large and complex data is a huge priority for government as it has the potential to transform public and private sector organisations, drive research and development, increase productivity and innovation, and enable market-changing products and services. This funding will help the UK grasp these opportunities and get ahead in the global race.

The successful Big Data projects will help with problems including those where large file sizes are present, there are a wide variety of data types, data needs to be analysed in real time, or where large quantities of data held on paper need to be made digital.

One of the projects hopes to use the wealth of genomics data generated in response to the falling prices of DNA sequencing. The team that will lead the project, from NERC's Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, have been awarded £500,000 to create a digital cloud with virtual collaborative workspaces, to link 'omics and environmental data sets and drive NERC's research efforts in the 'omics areas.

A team at the University of Reading has also been awarded £217,000 to build a multi-screen video wall with the aim of enabling public, industry and scientists alike to visualise complex environmental information and broaden their understanding of Big Data.

A third project hopes to improve our understanding of severe space weather risks. The £65,000 project will digitise high-resolution images of the solar disc - the visible surface of the sun - currently held on glass plates. The images, taken in the early 1900s, could lead to innovative solutions for predicting and mitigating the effects of space weather events.

Analysis of these Big Data sets presents opportunities both for new scientific insights and for translational research to transform the use and exploitation of environmental data and research in the wider community.

Professor Robert Gurney of the University of Reading, lead coordinator of NERC's Environmental Information Initiative, said:

As part of NERC's Environmental Big Data Initiative our new computer facility, JASMIN, is being enhanced to provide a world-class data analysis facility to the environmental scientific community.

While JASMIN provides a big data solution for a significant portion of this community, there are many problems for which a centralised computing facility is not yet a good fit. NERC's recent Big Data Capital Call looked for proposals that found creative solutions to these problems.

Professor Duncan Wingham, NERC's chief executive, said:

This will enable a new kind of science by allowing researchers to run potentially complex environmental models, to capture real-time data from sensors embedded in the natural environment, and to support the synthesis of this information impacting on science, policy and the economy.

Further information

NERC media office
01793 411561
07917 557215


1. A full list of Big Data funded projects is available.

2. This Capital Call is part of the wider NERC Environmental Big Data Investment initiative - a £13 million scheme to enhance cyber-infrastructure to enable better access, processing and sharing of large data sets from around the environmental science community. This initiative includes short projects led jointly with the Technology Strategy Board and businesses to develop about 20 feasibility projects focused on deriving business benefit from environmental data.

3. JASMIN will provide three types of computing close to a very high performance data archive: batch computing, a virtual hosting service, and a private cloud. All three will be optimised for high data throughput. The cloud computing, primarily to support the facility for Climate & Environmental Monitoring from Space (CEMS) and a platform which builds upon the concept of the Environmental Virtual Observatory (EVO), will be configured to allow large jobs to "burst" into commercial clouds where necessary. JASMIN will have access to major third party simulation and earth observation data as well as NERC data via the Centre for Environmental Data Archive.

4. NERC is the largest funder of environmental science in the UK. We invest £330 million in cutting-edge research, training and knowledge transfer in the environmental sciences. Our scientists study and monitor the whole planet, from pole to pole, and from the deep Earth and oceans to the edge of space. We address and respond to critical issues such as environmental hazards, resource security and environmental change. Through collaboration with other science disciplines, with UK business and with policymakers, we make sure our knowledge and skills support sustainable economic growth and public wellbeing - reducing risks to health, infrastructure, supply chains and our changing environment.

Press release: 02/14