New database system could aid research in science, engineering

December 10, 2013  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Researchers at Purdue University have developed a system that makes it easier to collect, share, explore and re-use data related to the impacts of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. 

Called DataStore, the system automatically turns spreadsheets into searchable databases accessible to researchers around the world.

"We wanted to build a user-friendly yet powerful capability for people to publish databases of their research," said Ann Christine Catlin, a senior research scientist in the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, a research-computing arm of Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP). "It takes only a few minutes to create your own online database using DataStore."

Work to develop DataStore was funded by the National Science Foundation's George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), based at Purdue. NEES includes 14 laboratories for earthquake engineering and tsunami research, tied together with cyberinfrastructure to provide information technology for the network.

"Until now, the study of specific subjects in engineering required each investigator to collect data on the subject manually, from journal to journal and from report to report, through hundreds or thousands of sources," said Santiago Pujol, a Purdue professor of civil engineering. "Without the generalized use of tools like DataStore we are losing data, time and effort. In most of our labs, as soon as students graduate they take most of the quantitative data collected in their research. They only leave behind a thesis and perhaps journal publications. But those do not contain the data, at least not in a useful format. Over time, we lose the data and the opportunity to learn from them."

DataStore is an addition to the NEEShub, a portal that provides civil engineers a platform for collaborative research and educational activities. NEEShub had more than 550,000 visitors last year, and about 86,000 engineers use it to advance and promote their research efforts.

DataStore databases can be searched, analyzed and downloaded by all NEEShub users, making it easier to share and re-use data for earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

"Data kept in spreadsheets is easily lost," Catlin said. "Now you can go to the NEEShub and use DataStore to store – and share – your data."

Databases created using the method contain clickable links to data, documents, graphs and drawings. The system offers researchers a way to disseminate their data to the global community, which could accelerate the sharing of knowledge to better understand the impacts of hazards such as earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Fourteen customized databases are featured at NEEShub, where users can browse, search, explore, analyze and export data, photos, videos, audio, drawings, reports, maps and plots collected by small research groups, professional communities and government agencies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The databases are part of the dissemination effort of the NEES project that also includes the Project Warehouse, with more than 2 million research project files.

"The future of engineering lies in our ability to use efficiently all the information that is being generated continuously throughout the globe since the beginning of the 20th century," Pujol said. "The vision of NEES databases is to provide a reliable tool that improves the ways in which we store and process this information.”

Ordinarily, it costs several thousand dollars to have a customized database developed.

"Now you can create your own online, searchable database for free," Catlin said. "You can add to it and revise it, so it's a living, breathing database."

Catlin leads the group of Rosen Center developers who have created about 30 scientific and medical databases over the past four years, work that laid the groundwork for development of the DataStore, built by developer Sudheera Fernando. 

Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709, 

Sources: Ann Christine Catlin, 765-494-9782,

Santiago Pujol, 765-496-8368,

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