Data Esperanto

And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. (Genesis 11:6–7, [King James Version])

As you probably recognize, these verses are from the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, which provided a divine explanation for the profusion of languages and cultures in the ancient world. It also recounts an archetypal engineering failure: the abandonment of a great tower due to the inability to collaborate and share information.

Today we still struggle with overcoming such differences, even in the world of astrophysics, where it is assumed that all practitioners speak the lingua franca of mathematics. Case in point: the Nearby Supernova Factory—better known as the SNfactory—an experiment that involves intense collaboration between American and French institutions.

The SNfactory is designed to collect reams of data on Type Ia supernovae, the subcategory of extraordinarily bright, remarkably uniform objects whose consistent peak luminosity makes them useful as “standard candles” for measuring the rate at which the universe is expanding—measurements that provide insight into the mysterious Dark Energy that accelerates this expansion.

Happily, the SNfactory anticipated the challenges of diverse languages and cultural proclivities and created Sunfall (SUperNova Factory AssembLy Line), a system of well-planned data curation and management, to overcome them. Sunfall brought together an interdisciplinary team of astrophysicists, computer scientists, and software engineers to design a collaborative scientific data management and visual analytics system that
integrates software tools and provides distributed, remote access to the supernova catalog database. It features an interactive, visual interface and a real-time chat system that promote collaboration and efficient decision-making.

As described in the recent report of the National Science Foundation Office of Cyberinfrastructure (NSF-OCI) Task Force on Data and Visualization, Sunfall has demonstrated how cyberinfrastructure can yield a significant return on investment, “both in terms of financial resources and scientific productivity.” In fact, the NSF-OCI report notes that Sunfall “reduced false supernovae identification by 40%; it improved scanning times by 70%; and it reduced labor for search and scanning from 6–8 people working four hours per day to one person working one hour per day.” The report further observes that Sunfall paid for itself within 18 months and it enabled new scientific discoveries—a
substantial return on investment on all counts.

So the ancients might have abandoned their engineering efforts in the face of linguistic and cultural diversity, but thanks to well-designed cyberinfrastructure, we can effectively and frugally collaborate across such anthropological divides.

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