NSF's Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs Program Aims to Strengthen Nation's Data Ecosystem

The program is a chance to connect people and groups that don't typically talk so they can share ideas and resources, encourage innovation, and build new partnerships.

by / January 15, 2016

Big Data got a booster shot last November when the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the Big Data Regional Innovation Hubs program, a three-year, $5-million-plus pilot intended to strengthen the nation's data ecosystem. Four regional consortiums — Northeast, Midwest, South and West — are coordinating efforts across 50 states and more than 250 organizations that include academia, state agencies, private industry and nonprofits that share common goals.

NSF anticipated the program's priority areas will include ways that big data can improve health care and management of natural resources, and support environmentalism, precision agriculture, education, personalized medicine, finance and the energy sector.

Western Hub Executive Director Meredith Lee explained that the program is a chance to educate through events like civic hackathons, connect people and groups that don't typically talk so they can share ideas and resources, encourage innovation, and build new partnerships. The Western Hub includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

"Personally, I am thrilled that our mission statement specifically calls out that we are looking to address societal challenges through big data innovation," Lee said. "There's a lot of public-private consortia and different partnerships being sponsored by the federal government, by local groups and universities and so forth, but it's really special to have all of these stakeholders at the table to say, yeah, we want to give back to our communities and look at something regionally that will really benefit all the constituents."

The Western Big Data Hub blog identifies four focus areas, which include:

  • "metro data science," which are challenges surrounding transportation, housing and economic development;
  • sustainability and the management of natural resources and hazards;
  • tracking innovations in storage technology, cloud computing, analytics and data visualization; and
  • supporting scientific research and learning.

This program will serve as a bridge for regional knowledge, Lee explained. Utah, for example, has challenges around water resource management, and neighboring institutions in New Mexico and California have information they could use that Utah officials probably wouldn't otherwise have access to. In his 2017 budget, Gov. Gary Herbert proposed $6.4 million in allocations to install water meters that can more accurately measure water usage. Regional collaborations can ensure that investments like these reach their maximum potential, Lee said.

"Utah, they're really excited about this because it's a way to build awareness," Lee said. "Everything starts to become siloed on a day-to-day basis when you're looking at all these different sectors, so even just convening people in their region and sharing those stories [is a huge asset]," Lee said. "The hope is that from our end, by showing value over the three years, we'll be able to find a sustained vehicle of funding so that we could continue to provide this type of partnership."

Utah is among the organizations applying for piece of the NSF's phase two funding, a $10 million grant program called Big Data Spokes. This extra funding would go toward researching the priority areas identified in the first phase of collaboration.

Like many states and cities, Utah has been trying for a more data-driven government, said Chief Technology Officer Dave Fletcher, and this program could be one piece of that effort. Though the hubs program is not intended to be a major component of that effort, Fletcher said, it could be a way to enhance collaboration and improve their general approach.

Some of the state's focus areas include reducing recidivism and insurance fraud, and supporting environmentalism, health care and public safety. If Utah gains Spokes funding, he said, it will be a chance to prove the value of analytics, thus making it more likely for future investment.

"Utah has been using a variety of data analytics tools for years, and our agencies have made a lot of progress in the way they use data to improve agency operations and provide services," Fletcher said, adding that as agencies begin to break down data silos and use a wider variety of data, including sensor data from the Internet of Things, and start applying them to societal challenges, "we will see even greater progress. I think the Big Data Hub and Spokes programs have the potential for stimulating these objectives."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.