Director of Agricultural Data Services begins connecting the dots

Barely moved into his new working area, Aaron Walz is already working to bridge gaps between data collection and data use at Purdue. Eager to begin in his new role, Walz has unpacked little more than the essentials: a computer, digital photo frame and his guitar.

“We currently have a professor who is working on setting up sensors in drain tile out in a remote location. AgIT is building the infrastructure required to automate this kind of data collection and get the data back to campus in a usable format,” said Walz.

Such scenarios provide the puzzles Walz will solve as Purdue Agriculture’s first director of agricultural data services.

“That’s a big part of what we’re expecting to do: help faculty set up data pipelines that let them take advantage of new technologies. We ask, ‘How do you extract meaningful information and get it to a place where it can be used?’ It’s about helping people connect the dots.”

Walz comes to the College of Agriculture from Purdue’s Business Intelligence Competency Center, where he served as director for five years. “I’m looking forward to doing work that more directly supports the mission of the institution. At a land-grant school like Purdue, agriculture is a place where all the different STEM disciplines intersect. It’s a really exciting space from a data standpoint. Agriculture’s impact on the planet and what we’re trying to accomplish is really significant.”

While agriculture is a new focus for Walz, the technology is familiar. “I’ve been working in the data field in higher education for about 17 years at the University of Illinois and here at Purdue,” Walz said. “I’ve spent a lot of time helping people describe and map out their information needs, and then working with technical teams to implement solutions to get the information they need.”

Walz’s initial priorities include adding a data services scientist to his team. Walz is currently searching for candidates to fill the position, designed to help him increase the usability and functionality of the college’s analytic toolsets and data pipeline. “There’s a lot of really innovative work that’s already happening at Purdue, so this will often be a matter of helping people connect with the different teams and services available. There are many different pieces that have to come together, and we hope to help faculty map out all the connections so they can take advantage of advances in how we can collect and use data. We already know that faculty are interested in receiving help with automating data collection and exploring new ways to analyze data, though I expect our services to continue to evolve as we better understand their needs and as those needs change over time. We’re looking for opportunities to learn more about what our faculty are doing so that we can better understand what’s out there and look for ways that we can help.”