Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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August 26, 2013

UVa launches Big Data Institute

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — An initiative at the University of Virginia will examine ways to use massive amounts of data collected by government, companies and academic researchers.

The Big Data Institute is a collaboration between university departments. U.Va. vice president for research Tom Skalak told The Daily Progress that it’s something larger universities wouldn’t be able to undertake because their units are more separate.

Skalak said university departments have been discussing the need for more data analysis for the past few years.

“We really see it as a bubbling up from the grassroots across all schools,” he said. “Many people in these many disciplines felt like there was an onslaught of data in every field.”

Skalak said the low-cost initiative will look at ways to organize and streamline massive amounts of data.

For example, chemists and astronomers use telescopes to search for the presence of chemicals that could nurture life on other planets. Analyzing the data coming in would take “terabytes a day or more,” he said.

“It takes a collaboration of astronomers, chemists and computer scientists who can design systems to handle streams of data,” Skalak said.

In addition, data scientists and doctors could work to calculate patients’ risks of disease or reactions to certain treatments. Businesses also could use the data to find more effective ways to advertise.

Other schools with similar initiatives include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But U.Va. wants to take advantage of its traditional strengths in social sciences and the humanities. Associate vice president for biosciences Rick Horwitz said U.Va. could look into the legal and ethical implications of collecting and using the data.

“I don’t know any other school that goes into the ethical side of it,” he said.

The Big Data Institute has a prominent role in U.Va.’s new strategic plan. Board of Visitors members supported the idea, although some seemed puzzled by the size of the role.

“I feel like we turned into the big data design committee,” said first-year board member Kevin P. Fay.


Information from: The Daily Progress


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