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Scientists hope for new tricks in data analysis

/ Source: The Associated Press

It turns out even computers can have information overload.

Powerful computers can make millions of calculations in a blink of the eye, but that leaves a nettlesome challenge: the task of analyzing the resulting mountains of data.

In response, scientists are exploring new ways to sift through huge troves of information and transform them into tidbits that researchers, health officials and even police officers can act on. The idea received a boost Wednesday as Georgia Tech announced it received a $3 million grant aimed at establishing visual and data analytics as a distinct research field for the first time.

The school hopes to use the grant, funded by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation, to recruit faculty and staff and develop guidelines for the field.

Researchers have high hopes for the nascent science, but they must first find an efficient way to mine the loads of raw data pumped from the Internet and sophisticated scientific instruments.

"We're looking at fundamental science, fundamental mathematics that in many ways are a mess of jumbled data," said John Stasko, a Georgia Tech professor of interactive computing. "We try to give them a structure, because as humans we make these inferences so much better when our data has structure."

For example, some researchers may use the science to respond to disease outbreaks by analyzing reports of medical ailments and drug purchases.

Stasko will focus some of his work on how new data analysis methods could be used to crack down on crooks. Satellite images, witness statements and other clues could be pumped into an innovative program to help authorities find new leads, he said.

Of course a computer can go only so far. "Then an investigator needs to put this all together and connect the dots, find the coherent story," Stasko said.