Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center Provides “Low-Tech” Access to World-Class Health Resources

PSC team does “makeover” for world-health repository at University of Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH, March 7, 2012— It was not the usual sort of challenge for supercomputing — make a database operate at low bandwidth. And make the website interface more attractive.

With low-tech as the watchword, a team at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) took on the task of updating Supercourse, a web-based repository of lectures by leading scientists and educators world-wide. An invaluable resource for many, Supercourse provides some of the best available information on how to practice preventive medicine around the world. Produced at the World Health Organization Collaborating Center University of Pittsburgh, Supercourse serves a network of over 56,000 scientists in 174 countries, who through it gain access to a free library of 5,100 lectures in 31 languages.

The University of Pittsburgh developers of Supercourse felt it was underused and needed a facelift from the text-oriented format established in 1986 and unchanged since then. “In today’s age, having a professional-looking website is a key to attracting web traffic, as well as funding sources,” says Supercourse scientist Faina Linkov. “While the old site was serving its mission of dissemination of materials, our big concern was that we can turn people away by having an outdated site.”

A key specification: It must be low bandwidth. “Our task,” said Shandra Williams, PSC multimedia designer, ”was to create a template and navigation that displays the hoard of resources consistently, loads quickly and can be seen from a third-world country on Netscape 3 using dial-up.”

A blog by Williams describing the PSC team’s Supercourse makeover project is here: http://pghsupercomputing.wordpress.com/

The PSC team — Shawn Brown, Rob Light, Deb Nigra and Williams, with Nathan Stone as project manager — redesigned the website, from black & white to glowing color, as a presentation platform for users and potential funders. Because there was no good single data source, they manually updated the entire collection of 5,100 lectures with assistance from Supercourse staff. They also designed and implemented an efficient administrative interface with a two-step process for Supercourse staff to update the site in the future. The effort took more than a year.

“Our global health project is one of the tops in the world,” said Supercourse scientist Ron LaPorte. “now we are very proud to also have a world-class website.”