The University Record, September 11, 2000

U-M researchers chosen to help design nationwide earthquake engineering network

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

A team that includes U-M School of Information researchers has been chosen by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to design a Web-based, national network for collaboration in earthquake engineering.

The Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) will link researchers and facilities at about 25 universities with high-performance networking, shared databases, computer modeling and simulation tools, and telepresence capabilities that could transform earthquake engineering.

Traditionally, engineers who study the effects of earthquakes have relied on physical experiments—testing model structures on “shake tables” that simulate earthquake activity, for example. The NSF project will help move the field forward by providing the tools for sophisticated computer models and simulations. The project also will take advantage of Internet technology to connect research facilities around the country, allowing researchers in different geographic areas to collaborate and share access to experimental equipment.

“The NEES vision is to improve the seismic design of buildings, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure in the United States,” says Priscilla Nelson, NSF division director for civil and mechanical systems. “The payoff will be reducing the impacts of earthquakes, potentially saving money and lives.”

The U-M part of the team, led by Tom Finholt, director of the Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work, has extensive experience with similar projects. Most notably, Finholt and other researchers in the School of Information played a key role in developing the NSF-funded Space Physics and Aeronomy Research Collaboratory (SPARC), one of the Internet’s premier collaborative research efforts.

Through SPARC, space physics researchers around the world control and gather data from more than a dozen instruments across—and above—the globe. The scientists have access to live data, advanced supercomputer models of upper atmospheric phenomena and state-of-the-art communication tools.

With researchers from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the Mid-America Earthquake Research Center, both at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the University of Illinois Department of Civil Engineering; the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory; and the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute and Department of Civil Engineering, the U-M group will produce a detailed design for the NEES system. The National Science Foundation has awarded $300,000 for this “scoping study” phase of the project. The scoping study may lead to an NSF award estimated at $10 million for full development of the NEES network.

NSF also will make awards to upgrade existing earthquake research facilities and to build new ones. When completed in 2004, NEES will provide remote access to users and make a complete system of testing and experimental facilities available to the entire earthquake engineering community. A Web site also will provide educational information to the public.