Summit explores how ‘big data’ and collaboration can solve environmental challenges

October 5, 2023

More than 150 leaders in science, industry, government, and the nonprofit world came together in downtown Baltimore at the end of September to discuss how to harness the power of big data and new technologies to accelerate solutions to society's most complex environmental challenges.

The conversation centered around the Chesapeake Global Collaboratory, a new initiative led by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science with the ambitious goal of accelerating solutions to complex problems by bringing a new generation of tools, voices, and approaches to environmental research. It is a “think and do tank,” both a physical and virtual space equipped with state-of-the-art technology where scientists, environmental policy makers, academics, and stakeholders can work together to address our most challenging environmental issues and educate the next generation of problem solvers.

“The reason why we are all here today is because of the importance to Maryland and the region of UMCES latest strategic focus—the Chesapeake Global Collaboratory,” said Bill Dennison, interim president at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “This initiative will use big data and new analytical tools while broadening the sphere of engagement to propel UMCES into its next centenary by working to solve the most complex problems facing the environment and quality of life.”

Keynote speakers for the two-day event included Erica Key, the Global Hub Director of Future Earth; Chaopeng Shen, a leading hydrology researcher at Penn State University, Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper and grassroots community advocate for clean water; and Shashi Shekhar, associate director of the College of Science and Engineering Data Science Initiative at the University of Minnesota. Attendees discussed innovative tools for transformation through cyberinfrastructure, broadening participation through equitable, authentic engagement with diverse voices, and actionable science for solutions.

“This is the most exciting thing coming out of UMCES the 20 years I’ve been here,” said Dennison. “This meeting is part of our plan to continually engage with our partners about how the Chesapeake Global Collaboratory should proceed, and what we should focus on.”

UMCES has a unique statutory mandate from the State of Maryland to conduct scientific research for the improvement and preservation of Maryland's physical environment. A trusted scientific advisor to state and national leaders, scientists provide unbiased research to inform public policy and have been leading the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort since the university’s founding in 1925. UMCES has evolved into a globally eminent research institution aimed at advancing scientific knowledge of the environment.

We are facing major global challenges, and new science and tools—such as artificial intelligence and machine learning—are rapidly evolving. Synthesis of these diverse data streams is key. Scientists collect 8 to 10 million data points each year on Chesapeake Bay alone. The Chesapeake Global Collaboratory is about thinking about how to put this data together to create new insights. We also want to have a global impact. We can learn from others, and others can learn from us.

The Collaboratory will support research applications by uniting multi-stakeholder groups to utilize innovative tools to analyze “big data”, leveraging high performance and cloud computing, open data science, and geospatial analytics. UMCES has already begun building institutional capacity to support this effort. A new physical space on the Chesapeake Bay will provide technology-augmented, in-person meeting capabilities and house high-performance computing resources and data scientists. Research funding has been secured from federal funding agencies to provide initial support for data scientists and project management, as well as providing new diverse voices and novel approaches.

“We are at an inflection point. Now is the time to collaborate and try new approaches, new models to solve the problems we haven’t yet solved. Who better to innovate those models than the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science,” said University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay Perman. “UMCES has excelled in its statuary roles and has been an effective catalyst for change with state and federal agencies, particularly related to bay restoration efforts and science-based policy development.”

“The innovations driven by your leadership is the reason we are here today,” said Josh Kurtz, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “It is critical to answer tough questions and build robust solutions. Using this information to drive our management decisions, bringing us together to learn from each other is important.”

“This is exactly where it starts. Great minds sitting around tables working towards a common goal. Using data and science and collaborating is how we solve complex issues together,” said Serena McIlwain, Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. “UMCES gets it. You understand the power of bringing people, great minds together. That is how we are going to make a difference in the country. It is about solving urgent and national challenges together.”

Generous support for this event was provided by the Merrill Family Foundation.