U-M to Help Lead NSF-Funded Regional Big Data Center

The University of Michigan will help direct a country-wide big data research and commercialization effort as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative announced earlier this month.

U-M will lead the new Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub, one of four hubs the NSF has set up across the United States, with the University of Illinois, Indiana University, University of North Dakota, and Iowa State University. Brian Athey, co-director of U-M’s Michigan Institute for Data Science, will oversee the effort at U-M.

“The innovation hubs are funded by the NSF to promote and establish collaborations between academia and business,” Athey said. “It’s time to get out of the box and create something.”

The Midwest hub will focus on four research areas where it has regional strengths: smart cities (including business analytics and network science); the “natural and built world,” described as food and water technologies, transportation, digital agriculture, and advanced manufacturing; and biomedical and healthcare technologies.

The NSF award provides $1.25 million to set up what Athey describes as “spokes and wheels”—the framework for bringing participants together to develop, plan, and support partnerships, as well as ways to address big-data challenges particular to the region. Local industry and nonprofit partners include the city of Detroit, Ford, General Motors, Domino’s Pizza, TechTown Detroit, Quicken Loans, and the Henry Ford Health System.

The pace of big data innovations has been fast and furious as more of the devices and tools we use in everyday life—our phones, cars, appliances, and even thermostats—come online and talk to each other. Athey cited one particular big-data use case—electronic health records—to illustrate the challenges of commercialization and implementation.

“The barrier to digitized health tools is the number of proprietary platforms owned by companies with business models that don’t encourage sharing,” Athey said. “The government mandated that hospitals adopt electronic health records, but so far, the platform options have been few.” Those that exist are often expensive to set up and clunky, he added. “We’ve poured money into companies with really archaic products.”

One goal of the Midwest hub is to establish standards and common practices to make adoption of non-proprietary platforms faster and easier across all three focus areas. For example, Athey said, a Wayne State University professor is working on research that tackles how companies can best use the reams of data they already collect to transform the way they do business.

“It’s putting a wrench in IT staff—they don’t know what to do, they don’t know how to analyze all the data they collect,” he said. “But through business analytics, you can use that information to optimize workflows and processes.”

The hope is that the data hubs will align educational programs with the needs of society. “Everywhere you look, there’s data,” Athey said. “The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is a new effort to try something unique—to force academics to the edge of their comfort zone and collaborate with industry and nonprofits to develop new capabilities.”

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