Drowning in data? There are ‘apps for that’ says Utah State University macroecologist Ethan White.
In the journal Nature’s Sept. 30, 2014, Toolbox Q&A feature, White, an associate professor in USU’s Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center, offers advice on computational tools to enable “scientists (to) spend more time doing science, and less time cleaning up and merging data.”
Tackling large, often unwieldy, datasets is an ongoing effort in the White Lab.
“Research in our lab focuses on using quantitative macroecological approaches, including large ecological databases, advanced statistical methods and theoretical modeling to understand broad scale ecological patterns,” says the 2010 recipient of a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award. “To facilitate rapid research in these areas, we develop tools to simplify working with large datasets.”
White says study of ecology at large scales is necessary to understand how biological systems respond to global scale changes in climate and habitat.
Reaching beyond biology, the scientist works toward interdisciplinary approaches, using tools from computer science, statistics and physics, combined with established ecological models, to predict major ecological patterns from diverse datasets.
White and USU Biology alum Ben Morris ’12, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently built the EcoData Retriever, an online tool to automate finding, downloading, cleaning up and storing ecological data files. Their efforts are detailed in a 2013 article in PLOS ONE.
“As a result of large-scale data collection efforts, a large and ever-increasing amount of ecological data is now publicly available on the Web,” White says. “But most ecological datasets don’t adhere to any agreed-upon standards in format, data structure or method of access.”
That can create a headache for scientists as they wade through oceans of disparate information.
“Web-based, open source tools to automate complicated and cumbersome database tasks allow ecologists to more rapidly determine where or not certain patterns are evident and global scales,” White says. “Using technology in this matter unlocks the data logjam and allows the field of ecology to advance with great speed and efficiency.”
Contact: Ethan White, 435-797-2097, firstname.lastname@example.org
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517, email@example.com