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eResearch Centre mines tropical data

Say you’re a developer scouting investment. You have motivation, a vision, and maybe even some early-stage funding. But what else could investors need before getting involved in a big project?

According to Townsville’s Ian Atkinson, Director of the eResearch Centre at James Cook University, the answer is raw data.

“If you want to do something in this part of the world – and friends in investment banking have made this really clear to me – you’ve just got to have access to primary data before you make investments,” says Atkinson. “You’ve just got to know what’s happening.

Atkinson is currently leading the centre’s Tropical Data Hub, an open repository of global tropical information, research and services. 

While the Hub incorporates information ranging from the the environmental to the economic and has multiple research targets, the accessibility of this data will hopefully help bridge gaps between investors and projects that aren’t obviously viable.

Atkinson believes cold, hard facts that demonstrate usefulness and worth are the new startup currency. If developers have access to data showing that their projects are supported by research and evidence, investors are far more likely to jump in.

In theory, the data available to developers today should be more common than ever before. As Atkinson terms it, we’re living in the age of “The Internet of Things”. (That’s the name of one of JCU’s newest engineering programs). 

We’re taking pictures, we’re sharing observations, we’re generating data – the internet is so ubiquitous today, floating around us as transient and common as the air we breathe.

There’s probably four billion internet-connectable devices in the world right now,”Atkinson says. “By the end of the decade it’s something like 40 billion.”

“The joke of internet-connected fridges will be a reality,” he says. “There’ll be internet-connected-just-about-anything.

And yet how easy is it to access this data? Atkinson believes the proliferation of data has massive potential but, however fast it’s being generated, is entirely useless if inaccessible.

“Despite the fact that the tropics are a very big part of the planet – probably 40% of the population live in the tropics, and it has some quite unique characteristics – it’s actually quite hard to find information about it that is on aggregate,” Atkinson says. “If you want to get data across that whole band and synthesise it, study it and analyse it, there’s really no way to do that at the moment.

Professor Ian Atkinson is working to proliferate tropical data with an open portal. Images courtesy of the Tropical Data Hub.

Professor Ian Atkinson is working to proliferate tropical data with an open portal. Images:  https://tropicaldata.org @jcu_eresearch 

A lack of access to data can create barriers to investment and unnecessary delays in potentially time-sensitive projects within government or commercial arenas, as well as the frustrating exercise of researchers unwittingly replicating studies that have already been done.  

And in tropical areas of Australia, where the impacts of climate change are felt earlier and stronger, access to data in science and research is essential.

The Tropical Data Hub is aimed at alleviating each of these issues, and is open to scientistsgovernment, researchers, and otherwise interested observers. Basically, whoever needs it most.

“Gathering that data, scoring it, analysing it, and turning it into useful information to do things, whether that’s useful to an individual, or to improve logistics, or whether it’s for commerce, is going to be one of the greatest assists that we’ve got in the next five to six years,” he says.

According to Atkinson, the Data Hub contains about 5000 data sets equalling at least a petabyte (a million gigabytes) of data. While data types are ever-expanding, typical topics include the distribution of tropical species under future climate-change scenarios, marine life in coral reefs, and business and economic activity in tropical regions.

The move to make the Data Hub accessible to anyone, rather than restricting access to academics or researchers, is entirely deliberate. Atkinson hopes this will continue to foster the startup culture he can already see flourishing in his tropical Queensland area.

Anyone can access it, and we encourage people to use it, because the more people use it, the more likely you are to come up with breakthroughs,” Atkinson says. “We’re trying to get some of that startup culture, the innovation culture, digital economy culture going on, and I’m really quite pleased because it’s starting to get some momentum locally.”

Suddenly you hear about things happening that you had nothing to do with, but people are independently taking the lead on, and that’s when you know that something’s got some momentum behind it,” he says. “I think it’s quite important, actually.”

About Sophie Meixner