Faculty eNewsletter

High performance computing in SA given the edge

The Centre for High Perfomance Computing project co-leader, Prof. Steve Damelin

A massive cash injection from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to Wits’ Schools of Computational & Applied Mathematics and Computer Science will enable Witsies to develop mathematical tools that address practical challenges, ultimately accelerating Africa’s socio-economic upliftment through the application of cyber infrastructure.

The CSIR’s Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC*) made the award of some  R2,2-million over three years from 1 July 2010 to Wits – the only university in South Africa to receive an award – for its 2010 CHPC Flagship Project.

Professor Steve Damelin (BSc 1991, BSC Hons 1992, MSc 1993; PhD Science 1996) in the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics will co-lead the project with Professor Michael Sears in the School of Computer Science.

“The award will involve multiple projects with undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate students and scientists all over the world in [the fields of] imaging, computer vision, high performance computing, computational harmonic analysis, and remote sensing,” says Damelin.

Acting Head of the School of Computer Science, Professor Ekow Otoo, explains, “This project embodies programmes to develop talents and expertise in High Performance Computing. It helps set the stage for active participation in developing next generation computing applications that would require peta-scale and exa-scale super computers. These systems enable applications to be executed in hours as opposed to months on today’s computers.”

Other Witsies in the team include Dr Amandine Robin in the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics and Michael Mitchley (BSc 2008; BSc 2009) and Nontokozo Mpofu in the School of Computer Science.

“There are numerous sub-projects contained within the overall award,” explains Damelin. “We are interested in developing mathematical tools using, for example, computational harmonic analysis, differential geometry and approximation theory, to apply to important practical problems. A typical example is ultrasound imaging where we study image reconstruction of various parts of the human body in two or three dimensions. Its applications are widespread, for example, in scanning the foetus in vivo during pregnancy or producing the tools to assist doctors in marking areas that are often difficult to assess through other methods, like the boundaries of nerves in tissue.”

The team will also investigate hyper-spectral imaging, which refers to the simultaneous collection and processing of information from the ultraviolet to the thermal region of the electromagnetic spectrum. “One of our projects will be to apply hyper-spectral imaging, using satellite technology to create patterns of data that will enable geologists to study rock materials and minerals that could assist in prospecting for valuable minerals and other resources,” says Damelin. “This is really where the mathematics comes in – the team will look at producing algorithms to compress and represent high dimensional spaces on two dimensional computer screens and to produce data that is easy to access and understand. This is an example of a ‘cyber loop initiative’ which brings real-life industrial problems to the table to be interrogated and solved mathematically by students and researchers in applied mathematics,” he adds.

Sears concurs: “I think that often problems are superficially very different, but that similar tools can be used to address them if you produce a suitable quantitative formulation. Nowadays, many disciplines are forced to deal with huge quantities of high dimensional data that have to be processed rapidly. That brings in computing and data handling issues, as well as mathematical and algorithmic ones.  It sounds hard, but it’s important work and great fun!”

Head of the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics, Professor David Sherwell (BSc 1971; BSc Hons 1972) concludes, “This [award] is a remarkable achievement for Wits and it once again proves that Wits staff and students can compete internationally in research and in developing innovation at the highest levels.”

* The CHPC is one of three primary pillars of the national cyber infrastructure intervention supported by the Department of Science and Technology. Its key objectives are to enable South Africa to become globally competitive and to accelerate Africa’s socio-economic upliftment through the effective application of high-end cyber infrastructure.