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Science is saving this city

Speed read
  • New high-performance computing center boosts economic outlook for a struggling city
  • Holyoke's hydroelectric infrastructure minimizes the costs of running HPC systems
  • Local students and community receive technical education and training

“I remember one community meeting where we were explaining the center, and somebody said ‘Oh, we figure once you move in you’ll have Humvees and barbed wire all over.’ But we’re not that kind of place!”

<strong>Hard times.</strong> Like many other post-industrial cities, Holyoke, MA struggled with blighted properties and limited job opportunities — until a new high-performance computing center came to town. Courtesy Doug Kerr. <a href='https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/'>(CC BY-SA 2.0)</a>That’s a quote from John Goodhue, executive director of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He’s talking about the initial reaction some residents had when the decision was announced to build an HPC center in the town.

In a lot of ways, those fears made sense. Goodhue says that while the small industrial city flourished up until the 1920s, the Great Depression kicked off a financial decline that peaked with the collapse of American manufacturing in the 1970s.

“Prior to the arrival of the MGHPCC, Holyoke was much like many other post-industrial cities that have seen industry and jobs exit over the years, leaving many empty factory buildings, blighted properties, and few job opportunities behind,” says James Lavelle, manager at Holyoke Gas & Electric and lifelong resident of the town.

If your town had everything taken from it, you too might be cautious of promises from big name institutions like Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Boston University (BU), and University of Massachusetts (UMass)

Thankfully for the residents of this western Massachusetts town, the academic powerhouses really did have good intentions.

Keeping it cheap

<strong>Million dollar dam.</strong> Computers are expensive to power and cool, but the existing hydroelectric infrastructure in Holyoke allows for significantly cheaper electricity rates than in Boston and other area research centers.“Computing is fundamental to every kind of research,” says Goodhue. “However, our founders were faced with an explosion of computing hardware on their campuses, which generated serious facilities problems. Computers are hard to power and cool, and places like downtown Cambridge, or even Amherst, are not cost effective in terms of electricity.”

With energy costs so high in their home towns, it made sense for the colleges to team up to build a joint HPC center in a town with cheaper electricity like Holyoke.

The town has a hydroelectric system dating back to the 1850s that taps the power of New England’s largest river. This existing infrastructure allows for electrical prices that are significantly cheaper than anything these large universities can find near their campuses. 

“In addition to having some of the lowest electric rates in New England (55-68% lower than comparable investor-owned utility tariffs in Massachusetts), we can also offer long term energy contracts to our customers that give them price certainty over a five-year or ten-year horizon,” says Lavelle.

It takes a village

<strong>Holyoke Codes</strong> provides local children with extracurricular opportunities to work with technology, including programming and robotics. Courtesy Girls Inc.Holyoke clearly had a lot to offer, but so did Goodhue and the MGHPCC. Perhaps the most important benefits are the educational resources and expertise the center is helping to provide to the community. One of the most notable is an initiative called Holyoke Codes

By teaming up with Girls Inc., the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), and the Commonwealth Alliance for Information Technology Education (CAITE), MGHPCC created Holyoke Codes to provide local children with extracurricular opportunities to work with interesting technologies. The initiative uses Scratch programming to show kids how to build games and work with robotics. One year, the program even launched a balloon into space.

The MGHPCC also directly affects the in-school education of area children. The center was a driving force behind Holyoke middle and high schools receiving a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant to promote computational thinking.

<strong>Confidence builder.</strong> The arrival of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center has infused Holyoke’s citizens and businesses with a new sense of possibility. Courtesy Holyoke Codes.The educational benefits don’t stop with K-12. The MGHPCC has also developed a program with local community colleges in which interns start with a computer that has no software. They are then tutored by MGHPCC workers on how to get it running, eventually working their way up to maintaining the giant clusters used in the facility’s data center.

This program is so successful that 100% of the interns either go into a computer science program in college or become employed in a technical field.

Teaching children and young adults the skills they’ll need to succeed in the new economy is clearly beneficial, but what the MGHPCC really seems to provide Holyoke is a revitalized sense of confidence.

“There are businesses where the people who own them are saying ‘If Harvard can move into the city, we can probably take the risk too,’” says Goodhue. “The way I measure the recovery is that there were buildings across the street from us that were dark when we moved in, and now they’re lit up at night.”

 

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