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Building the US big data machine

Speed read
  • The NSF invests $5 million (€4.68 million) to build four regional big data hubs.
  • Research to follow regional strengths and challenges.
  • Reduced coordination costs will foster partnerships across multiple sectors.
The Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs cover all 50 states and include commitments from more than 250 organizations — from universities and cities to foundations and Fortune 500 corporations — with the ability to expand further over time. Courtesy NSF.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has long been integral to the development of the infrastructure, tools, and training required for gleaning insights from large data sets. With a recent $5 million (€4.68 million) investment, they are creating four big data hubs so scientists can investigate research topics with an everyday impact in their region. 

The four hubs are located at Columbia University (Northeast); Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina (South); the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Midwest); and the University of California, San Diego, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington (West). Alaskan and Hawaiian researchers will work through the West hub, and US territories are welcome to participate in any regional hub.

“By establishing partnerships among likeminded stakeholders,” says Jim Kurose, NSF's assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, “BD Regional Innovation Hubs represent a unique approach to improving the impact of data science.”

<strong> Learning is cool.</strong> BD Hubs will facilitate projects like the LearnSphere project. LearnSphere seeks to improve educational outcomes by upgrading the infrastructure for educational data mining. These heatmaps illustrate relationships between prior knowledge, learning rate, guess rate, and slip rate, identifying strengths and weaknesses so educators can personalize the learning experience for students.
 Courtesy Steven Ritter, Carnegie Learning; NSF.

Each of the hubs chose research foci mirroring regional strengths and challenges. For instance, the Midwest hub is situated near one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the world. The Midwest is also home to Mayo Clinic, world-renowned leader in healthcare, and Eli Lilly, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. And, as the third most populous city in the US, Chicago employs many smart city management concepts.

For these reasons, the Midwest hub will focus on:   

  1. Society (e.g., smart cities and communities; network science; business analytics)
  2. Natural and built world (e.g., water, food, and energy; digital agriculture; transportation; and advanced manufacturing)
  3. Healthcare and biomedical research

“Big data will help us determine how much water to use for raising food, how much for drinking, and how much to leave untouched,” said Edward Seidel, principal investigator of the Midwest hub and director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. “It will help us decide how to allocate resources based on current soil, crop, and climate decisions — ultimately, how to make the smartest decisions possible for the benefit of the people who live here.”

The other hubs will have similar foci: 

  • Northeast hub: Big data in health, energy, finance, cities/regions, discovery science, and data science in education (connecting research will include data sharing, privacy and security, ethics and policy, and education)
  • Southern hub: Healthcare, coastal hazards, industrial big data, materials and manufacturing, and habitat planning
  • Western hub: Big data technologies, managing natural resources and hazards, precision medicine, metro data science, and data-enabled scientific discovery and learning

<strong> The heat is on. </strong> An estimate of the total annual building energy consumption for New York City, expressed in kilowatt hours (kWh) per square meter of land area. A mathematical model based on statistics, not individual building data, was used to estimate the energy consumption in buildings throughout the five boroughs. BD Hubs will enable similar smart city analyses. Map created by Shaky Sherpa of Sustainable Engineering Lab (formerly Modi Research Group). Courtesy NSF.The Big Data Hubs program is an offshoot of the National Big Data Research and Development Initiative President Obama launched in early 2012. Under that initiative, six federal departments pledged over $200M (€187 million) to fund the forward-thinking research thrust, launching new fields of otherwise inaccessible inquiry.  

Given reduced coordination costs, the NSF expects partnerships with Fortune 500 companies and smaller research and education institutions to form more easily. Greasing the wheel in this way ensures “teams of data science researchers will come together with domain experts, with cities and municipalities, and with anchor institutions to accelerate progress in a wide range of science and education domains with the potential for great societal benefit,” says Kurose.

Read the NSF press release here.

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