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Federal government to invest in 'big data' for science, technology R&D

The federal government has announced a $200 million initiative for “big data” research, education and training.

“Big data” just got a little bigger. On Thursday, the Obama administration launched a big data research and development initiative consisting of $200 million in commitments from six federal departments and agencies.

The funds will support research proposals seeking insights from diverse data sets -- specifically in science and technology -- as well as the development to uncover those insights more efficiently. The new initiative will also subsidize education and training for professionals that want to learn how to store, manage and analyze data that’s growing in both volume and complexity.

“The private sector will take the lead, but the government can play an important role to support using big data approaches,” said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which developed the initiative along with the participating agencies.

What federal agencies are participating?

  • National Science Foundation
  • National Institutes of Health
  • Department of Defense
  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
  • Health and Human Resources
  • Department of Energy

Representatives from those six agencies, including the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, participated in a forum Thursday to highlight “the first wave” of partnerships and individual big data projects under way. One such partnership between the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health joins statisticians and biologists to build algorithms that could reveal more information about protein structures and biological pathways.

“We’ve seen data increasingly serve as a primary driver of discovery and decision making,” said Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation.

The new initiative lends credibility to the idea of big data management -- a concept that has exploded within the analytics community.

“It’s great for the industry as a whole when such a high-level announcement is made on big data and analytics,” said Dan Vesset, vice president of business analytics research for IDC in Framingham, Mass. “It will raise everyone’s awareness of the topic, which should be good for the market.”

That was the general consensus from industry analysts, who believe the federal government’s announcement will help form and strengthen partnerships between universities, research organizations and businesses.

“This announcement will likely -- directly and indirectly -- stimulate the already breakneck growth and evolution of the big data market,” wrote James Kobielus, a senior analyst for Cambridge, Mass-based Forrester Research Inc., in an email. “Undoubtedly, vendors in our community will see RFPs [requests for proposals] on new procurements of Hadoop, advanced analytics, machine learning and other big data technologies, tools and professional services.”

But the big data initiative pales in comparison to the government’s investment in supercomputing and the creation of the Internet. In fact, the big data investment -- a mere $200 million -- is dwarfed by the research and development of commercial vendors, according to analysts.

What is ‘big data?’

“Big data” is used to describe the voluminous amount of structured, unstructured and semi-structured data a company creates -- data that in many cases would take too much time and cost too much money to load into a conventional relational database for analysis. 

Read more from the definition of big data.

“It’s a great start,” said Rita Sallam, research vice president for Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “[But] relative to how much money the federal government spends, it’s a drop in the bucket.”

Sallam sees the big data proposal as a continuation of other government initiatives, pointing to a website called The site is built around the idea of crowdsourcing and turns hard-to-solve problems -- many times analytics-based -- into competitions.

“They’re already starting to solve big data problems through open prize competitions,” Sallam said. “I’m not sure it’s on the level of what they invested when building out the Internet, but I do think it’s recognition that the government has a role to play in solving tough data problems.”

The government, Sallam said, could tackle esoteric problems that vendors may not have interest in funding but may have important commercial implications down the road.

“Funding research that at first glance may not have direct applicability to commercial problems or big data problems could also mean developing tools and techniques that can ultimately be applied to commercial problems,” she said. “Certainly that’s what happened with the Internet.”

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