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Big Data

NSF Funds Big Data Brain Trust

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is making sure that big data gets attention in every pocket of the country. This week the NSF unveiled the establishment of four regional hubs for data science innovation, each led by a team of university experts and extending out to almost 300 other organizations, including non-profits, cities and businesses. Each big data or BD hub will specialize in particular areas of study and will provide guidance for building out "spokes" to undertake specific projects.

The "big data brain trust" assembled within each hub is expected to develop and support regional partnerships and activities to address regional challenges. The goal is to simplify the creation of partnerships by covering coordination costs and creating opportunities for experts to share ideas, resources and best practices. Each hub is receiving a $1.25 million research grant from the NSF.

The West Hub will be co-led by the University of California, San Diego, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington. The focus there is "on development and application of big data technologies, data standards, relevant policies and ethics and innovative data-intensive discovery techniques," said Michael Norman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. "These will be leveraged with the aim of transforming how data is collected, integrated, stored, analyzed and shared, all with the goal of assessing risks related to regional and long-term decisions." Among the industry segments being addressed are land and water management, medicine, metropolitan areas and science.

The Northeast Hub is being directed from Columbia University. It expects to address four themes: education, data sharing, ethics and policy and privacy and security. Areas of focus will include health, energy, cities and regions, finance, big data in education and discovery in the natural sciences.

The South Hub is under the direction of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI). Projects will include healthcare, coastal hazards, industrial big data, materials and manufacturing and habitat planning. Co-principal director of the South BD Hub, Ashok Krishnamurthy, who also is deputy director of RENCI, noted that the "important problems of our time — from solving disparities in health care to understanding the risks of coastal storms and floods — involve making sense of massive amounts of data." By co-leading the project, he said, "We will be at the forefront of using data for the public good."

The Midwest Hub is being led by the Universities of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and North Dakota and Iowa State University and will encompass three areas of focus:

  • Society, such as smart cities and communities, network science and business analytics;
  • The "natural and built world," including water, food and energy; digital agriculture; transportation; and advanced manufacturing; and
  • Health care and biomedical research.

"We're thrilled to be a part of this effort, and are looking forward to establishing dynamic partnerships that will coordinate big data expertise and resources to improve the region's quality of life," said Professor Brian Athey, co-director of U Michigan's Michigan Institute for Data Science.

The first job for the hubs to tackle is setting up the governance structure for the BD Hub consortia, recruiting executive directors and staff for each BD Hub and beginning the work of developing inter-hub collaborations.

A future phase, called "Big Data Spokes" (BD Spokes), could award up to $10 million in grants — if the funds are available — to help initiate research in specific priority areas identified by the BD Hubs.

Each BD Spoke would focus on a specific BD Hub priority area and tackle one or more of three key issues: improving access to data, automating the data lifecycle and applying data science techniques to solve domain science problems or demonstrate social impact.

"This program represents a unique approach to improving the impact of data science by establishing partnerships among likeminded stakeholders," said Jim Kurose, NSF's assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, which funded the program. "In doing so, it enables teams of data science researchers to come together with domain experts, with cities and municipalities and with anchor institutions to establish and grow collaborations that will accelerate progress in a wide range of science and education domains with the potential for great societal benefit."

The various partnerships are expected to result in professional certificate programs and student internships, to create a "pipeline" of talent from institutions to industry, government and other entities that need experts in big data.

The announcement of the grant awards comes just as participants from the various hubs are meeting for the first time in Arlington, VA. That meeting will allow leaders and researchers from each BD Hub to discuss governance and sustainability models, coordinate ideas for BD Spokes and identify next steps.

On the final day of the meeting, November 5, a public webinar will take place for BD Hubs representatives to share their preliminary thoughts and next steps.

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