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Case study

Powerful computing for social sciences with ODISSEI Secure Supercomputer

Social scientists conducting research with data from Statistics Netherlands (CBS) can safely harness the power of high-performance computing. This is done with the ODISSEI Secure Supercomputer (OSSC), a shielded environment that runs on the national supercomputer Cartesius. The OSSC has been developed by SURF in collaboration with CBS and ODISSEI.

Heavy computing on supercomputers has traditionally been the domain of physicists looking for even smaller particles or of geneticists trying to understand our DNA. But also social scientists, who deal with all kinds of things that people are confronted with in their daily lives, increasingly compute with very large data files. In many cases, these are data about people, and the protection of privacy is essential. 

With the ODISSEI Secure Supercomputer (OSSC), it is now possible to use the power of high-performance computing to conduct secure research with this type of data. Social scientists can analyse a wide range of research data on the OSSC: a fully privacy-proof high-performance computing environment that runs on the national supercomputer Cartesius, but is shielded from the outside world. As a result, no data can 'leak'. Users only have access via the CBS portal.

Growing need for computing power 

Statistics Netherlands collects data from the Dutch population for statistical purposes. For more than 15 years the CBS has made these data accessible for scientific research under very controlled conditions and with strict privacy protection. Due to the ever-increasing availability of data, the need for ever-increasing computing power is growing.

ODISSEI (Open Data Infrastructure for Social Science and Economic Innovations) is the national research infrastructure for the Dutch social sciences. ODISSEI brings together researchers with data, expertise and resources to carry out groundbreaking research and to exploit the computational trend in social research. Through ODISSEI, researchers have access to large-scale, longitudinal data collections, as well as innovative and diverse forms of data.

In 2018, CBS, ODISSEI and SURF joined forces. In order to facilitate scientific researchers in working with large and complex data from universities, CBS and other research institutions, a special environment has been set up on the national supercomputer Cartesius where this is possible: the ODISSEI Secure Supercomputer. After a number of successful pilots, it became available in 2020 to all researchers connected to a participating ODISSEI research institute.

"Analysing large data files costs a lot of computing capacity. An average computer is insufficient for this. On the supercomputer, accredited researchers can carry out complex analyses on large CBS files, with a strict guarantee of privacy of course. Such analyses contribute to answering important social questions."
Ruurd Schoonhoven (Microdata Services, CBS)

Research at unprecedented speed

Ana Petrović, researcher at Delft University of Technology, has already successfully deployed the OSSC: “We developed a unique approach to measure the spatial context of people at 101 different scales. From the immediate surroundings of their home up to the wider region. We use these multiscale measures to better understand the impact of the spatial context on individuals, such as work and wellbeing. Using the ODISSEI Secure Supercomputer has tremendously reduced our computation time: from more than four months to less than a week.”

"We live in a very unpredictable and complex world", says Pearl Dykstra, Professor of Empirical Sociology at EUR and Scientific Director of ODISSEI. "In order to understand existing uncertainties and interdependencies, social scientists need access to many different data sources, advanced computer techniques and analytical expertise. Of course, with the highest security standards in relation to personal data. The ODISSEI Secure Supercomputer provides the secure, powerful computing environment needed to conduct research into complex social reality interdependencies at unprecedented speed".

Annette Langedijk, community manager SURF and member of the ODISSEI management board: "Worldwide, the combination of very well annotated and long term collected data from the population, together with the possibility to conduct research on a supercomputer, is unique. With this, we expect to give Dutch social scientific research a boost".

More information on the OSSC can be found on the ODISSEI website. 


Annette Langedijk

Annette Langedijk