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Big Data Activities at the Powell Center

Add Alt Text USGS fisheries scientists sort a Great Lakes deep-water trawl.
Photo Credit: Joe Spicciani, USGS

The John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, a USGS-supported forum for cross-disciplinary scientific collaboration, assumed a central role in Director Marcia McNutt's address to a recent White House-sponsored event on Big Data.

"In an era when we are drowning in data but starving for understanding (to paraphrase E.O. Wilson), the USGS Powell Center helps scientists extract meaning from information," the Director said. "Liberally mix great minds drawn from many fields, fertile data, and computational resources in a peaceful and engaging setting, and voila! . . . progress on the thorniest scientific problems of our time."

Director McNutt described a series of large, complex datasets that Powell Center Working Groups would be using to answer their high-priority science questions, which included:

  • Great Lakes deep-water fisheries and invertebrate annual survey data since 1927
  • Data collected from the Great Barrier Reef
  • Extensive remote sensing data of land cover types for the Western United States, Canada, and Mexico
  • Decades of data records for mercury levels in the Western United States, Canada, and Mexico
  • Global Earthquake Model databases, including the global instrumental earthquake catalog, global active faults and seismic source database, global earthquake consequences database, and new vulnerability estimation and data capture tools

Big Data activities at the Powell Center are part of a $200 million effort coordinated by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to address the ever-increasing size and complexity of data generated throughout the U.S. Government, academia, and the private sector.

The Powell Center has also recently undertaken a joint venture with the Earth Sciences Division of the National Science Foundation Directorate for Geosciences to jointly fund select Powell Center Working Groups each year. The first project, approved to begin operations in 2012, will establish a comprehensive view of the transport of dissolved organic matter in streams and rivers.

The Powell Center selected seven additional Working Groups for USGS support in FY 2012:

  • Understanding and Managing For Resilience in the Face Of Global Change
  • Climate Change and Ecohydrology in Temperate Dryland Ecosystems: A Global Assessment
  • Mercury Cycling, Bioaccumulation, and Risk Across Western North America: A Landscape Scale Synthesis Linking Long-Term Datasets
  • Modeling Species Response to Environmental Change: Development of Integrated, Scalable Bayesian Models of Population Persistence
  • Joint USGS-Global Earthquake Model (GEM) Group On Global Probabilistic Modeling of Earthquake Recurrence Rates and Maximum Magnitudes
  • The Distribution Of Fibrous Erionite in the United States and Implications for Human Health
  • The Next Generation Of Ecological Indicators: Defining Which Microbial Properties Matter Most to Ecosystem Function and How to Measure Them

Additional information about the Powell Center, including research and products of current and previous Working Groups, is available at: or by contacting the Powell Center Co-Directors, Jill Baron at and Marty Goldhaber at