(TNS) —  Making sense of big data is often likened to finding a needle in a haystack. But a dean at UNLV's engineering college says he's improved the analogy. Organizing big data is more like finding one-tenth of a needle in a haystack, argues Rama Venkat, head of the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering. "(And) there are not enough scientists to figure out what is in it," he said.

That's where Venkat sees an opening for the university, which is hoping to ramp up its capabilities in data analytics. The effort began with hiring a specialized computer scientist last year, allowing the expansion of UNLV's big-data footprint. And on Thursday, a proposal was submitted to a state economic-development fund's advisory board for $500,000 to create a campus Institute for Big Data.

The move follows the lead of many American universities that have broadened their scopes to encompass data science, given how pervasive big data is in everything from the economy to dating.

"We are kind of a little late in the game," said Venkat, "but there is so much opportunity, I think it's not too late."

The Institute for Big Data, which is envisioned as a partner to local industries and the go-to resource for analytics, is likely to play a significant role in the university's larger plan to embrace data science. On the recommendation of its advisory board, the Governor's Office of Economic Development is currently considering whether it will seed the institute with a Knowledge Grant, but Venkat is bullish about creating it regardless.

"We are going to do this," he said.

UNLV has been setting itself up to expand its efforts around big data for some time now. Last year, faculty researchers gained access to a high-speed supercomputer, known as Cherry Creek II, that was brought to the university through partnerships with Las Vegas data company Switch and Silicon Valley technology giant Intel. This allowed several researchers to work more effectively with data and build more detailed models of complex systems, from black holes to the human genome.

The machine has dozens of users now, said Joseph Lombardo, who oversees UNLV's supercomputing center. He compares big data to other innovations in information technology. The trend, he said, suggests that people are unsure of how to use a new IT tool like the internet, until companies like Google or Facebook give it a clear use.

"I think we're going to see something very similar," he said.

Many researchers at UNLV already use big data. The Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine, for instance, is premised on taking a data-driven approach to medicine by decoding the blueprint of an individual's genome. Other researchers use vast data sets to study aspects of fracking or theoretical astrophysics.

Doubling down on big data could serve multiple functions for UNLV. It would arm students with vital skills in the workforce, says Vice President for Research and Economic Development Tom Piechota, adding that industries have expressed a need for students trained in data analytics. And it could be an economic-development tool, positioning UNLV to become an asset for regional companies that are looking to enhance their analytics.

"Big data plays a serious role," Venkat said. "Everything we as human beings have started doing and will be doing ... will be based on big data."

Venkat says he hopes to add another specialist in big data during the next hiring cycle. Right now, UNLV's big-data point person, at least in the engineering school, is Justin Zhan, the computer scientist hired last year. If and when the Institute for Big Data is formed, he would become its director.

Zhan, through a U.S. Department of Defense grant, is currently overseeing a six-week summer program to expose local high school students to analytics.

Still, UNLV has several steps to take before it can boast a full-scale data program, including adding a data-science degree track.

As dean of the engineering college, Venkat recognizes this and is eager to create one. His vision is a graduate degree program for data science that is interdisciplinary. Students would be required to take some core classes but then could choose a specialty in areas like hospitality, health care or biology.

"I think everyone is ready to do something like that," he said.

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