Behind the scenes at the Data Observatory

Dr Anna Cupani, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Data Science Institute


The Data Science Institute is home to one of the most visited, photographed and filmed spaces at Imperial, our Data Observatory. You may have seen it as the backdrop of many high profile visits, but it is also used as a tool for interactive group work with businesses and policy makers or with students exploring the surface of Mars or checking Bitcoin transactions in real time. We have even had a string quartet playing in there!

With its 64 screens arranged in a semi-circular environment, it is an immersive space where high definition images can make you feel like you are on the Mont Blanc on a sunny day or allow you to dive into a London map of bike users. After having hosted tens of visits in there, I am still not tired of the surprised “wow!” and the gasps and brief silence that follow the moment people step into the Observatory.

The Data Observatory in action

After 5 years of excellent service, our loyal window on the world of data was in need of an upgrade. For months, the visualisation team had been working behind the scenes, creating our Open Visualisation Environment. Finally, 2020 was the time to upgrade the hardware!

We had the shipment of the new screens arranged for the week before Easter, and a planned refurbishment scheduled the week after it. Then, at the beginning of March, anticipating the national lockdown of a few days, all College activities went remote and visits to the Observatory were cancelled. Things were about to become much more complicated. With access to the College reduced to the bare minimum, labs closed and group activities banned, all engineering works had to be put on hold. We could not even travel to the Institute. But we still had a pending delivery of 64 screens that could not be dropped in Dalby Court or under the Queen’s Tower indefinitely!

Dr Ovidiu Şerban, leading the visualisation team, recalls those frantic days of “trying to coordinate remotely with several teams”. Security liaised directly with the College warehouse staff who know their way around everything – and had proper PPE and training. The day before delivery, Ovidiu got a call from the logistics team at Imperial that one member of staff had tested positive for COVID-19 so, following College protocol, all rooms involved and the furniture in there had to be disinfected before anything could be done in there.

Finally, on the 23rd April, the screens landed safely in our boardroom. “I asked for a photo to prove that it had all gone according to plan!” says Ovidiu.

It was only at the beginning of June, with travel allowed and safety measures in place on campus, that the proper dismantling of the old equipment could start, with support from DSI colleagues and under strict social distancing rules. Andrianirina Rakotoharisoa, our system engineer, explains how it took 2 days only to remove the screens “…and then you need to dispose of all that material! For every half a day of work, we needed half a day to manage the recycling.” Recycling was also tricky during the pandemic as removal was not so frequent.

A room full of monitors stacked on the ground
Old monitors ready to be disposed of
A room with a semi-circular arrangement of mounts for monitors
Ready for re-assembly

Re-assembling the observatory was another lengthy task that stretched well into August. “We underestimated the alignment time,” admits Ovidiu, “We fancied some more advanced technology but ultimately an old school bubble leveller was what worked best”. In parallel, the team also re-did the network configuration at hardware level and refurbished the storage system. While doing some testing, Andrianirina identified some issues with the motherboard of 5 of the screens: “it took us a while to figure out where the problem was. Apparently we had spotted a unique bug and the supplier sent a team to the Observatory to have that sorted”.

Thanks to some helping hands from the DSI team, and after some other equipment issues were sorted, finally at the beginning of November the Data Observatory was ready to open its doors again. We are really looking forward to welcoming researchers and visitors to explore data in our brand new Observatory again in 2021. We get a feeling that we will see some epidemiological data up there, sooner or later…

Dr Anna Cupani

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