Science - February 25, 2016

Dies natalis on big data

Koen Guiking

The 98th birthday of Wageningen UR will be celebrated on 9 March with a series of lectures on big data. Besides the main speaker Laxmi Parida of IBM Research, three Wageningen researchers will tell about how they identify relevant information from heaps of information.

Opening academic year 2015/ Photo: Bart de Gouw

‘I can show how I predict the behaviour of a micro-organism using genomic information’, says microbiologist Heidy den Besten. She studies the behaviour of pathogenic bacteria in the food chain. Those pathogenic bacteria are generally only present in small numbers, next to many harmless bacteria. In order to analyse the DNA of the pathogenic  bacteria, Den Besten first needs to isolate a small fraction of the bacteria from a large population and from that she needs to get the genome sequenced. ‘When the human genome was first sequenced, it took years. Now I can get the genome of twenty organisms sequenced and I can receive the data within a month. I then need to analyse the information of millions of base pairs’, Den Besten explains. ‘From that I can for example learn why the one isolate is more acid resistant than the other.’

The battery temperature of smartphones appears to be related to the air temperature outside.
Gert-Jan Steeneveld

Meteorologist Gert-Jan Steeneveld will explain how he uses the information on battery temperature of smartphones to predict temperatures in the city. And that at street level. ‘Smartphone users that have installed a certain app pass all sorts of information on the network strength at the place where they are. As by product, also the battery temperatures are passed on. That battery temperature appears to be related to the air temperature. Using that data we can thus indicate at which places in the city people could suffer of heat stress.’ Naturally, the forecasts based on the telephone data are validated. This is done using weather stations that are hung on lampposts in Amsterdam. And the last step, Steeneveld reveals, is to develop an app where the public can view where the city is hot and where they can find places to cool, using colour codes on their telephone screen.

Arjen Daane of the LEI also uses data that is provided by others. ‘We are working with a group of gardeners to predict the crop yields and market chances.’ The computing power is connected with the knowledge of the gardeners, Daane explains. ‘With only the hard facts that computers supply based on algorithms you are not there yet.’ Gardeners take factors into account that the computer does not know. They can thus correct the computer. Daane: ‘At the LEI we then select gardeners that are the best at correcting and based on computer calculations and the best expert knowledge we make predictions on the yield and market demand.’

The three Wageningen scientists will present after the keynote speaker of Laxmi Parid, head of the Computational genomics group of the Thomas J. Watson Research Center of IBM. Also the rector Arthur Mol will of course speak at the celebration. Employees and students that want to attend the ceremony, can sign up through

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