UF sets up team to crunch 'big data'


Published: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 9, 2013 at 12:15 p.m.

With the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of smartphones, cars with onboard computers, social networks like Facebook, even the digital storage of medical records, people are generating billions and billions of nuggets of information daily.

A leading edge in research is the ability to capture and analyze all that "big data" and use it to help track weather patterns, model disease outbreaks, and make economic forecasts. There is a demand in business, the social sciences and other fields for 200,000 people who can crunch big data, according to one recent study.

The University of Florida wants to be at the front of that big data revolution. It has committed $3.8 million to create a multi-disciplinary team of researchers — to be called the Informatics Institute — able to crunch big data and apply it to economic, social, medical and educational issues.

"For the first time in human history, we have this capacity to generate huge amounts of data, everywhere from the unraveling of human genome to Amazon database collecting all your preferences," Provost Joe Glover said.

The Informatic Institute is one of 16 new programs to be financed with the first $15 million in "pre-eminence funding" that UF received from the Legislature this year as the state's top public university.

The programs were selected after months of discussions with deans, directors and department chairs, Glover said. They submitted 52 proposals, which were reviewed by senior vice presidents and culled to a list of 22, Glover said.

President Bernie Machen then took those ideas, Glover said, consulted with a panel of distinguished professors, and mixed and matched those proposals to come up with the 16 that UF is moving forward with.

"We selected the proposals that reflect UF's current strengths and that have potential to move the needle in their fields," Machen said in a news release. "Such leadership in science and scholarship is a critical step to UF's rise among the nation's top public universities."

As the state's pre-eminent public university, UF will receive $15 million a year over five years to recruit faculty who are well-known at the top of their fields in research and academics. Machen pledged to match that money with private donations.

Glover estimated the university can hire 75 to 100 professors with that money, depending on their mix of experience. He hopes to have the first round of new hires in place by next fall.

"We would like to hire all of them, but the chances of that are not good," he said. "We are looking for a lot of them to be senior hires, people who have achieved a record in their field."

If there is any unifying theme to the 16 new programs, Glover said, it is that they were chosen based on UF's current strength and expertise that could be built on, and on fields that had significant potential to develop over the next 10-15 years.

For example, UF's Emerging Pathogens Institute has already done remarkable work using a statistical approach to modeling malaria and other diseases, Glover said, but needed faculty who could do mathematical modeling to understand the spread of the disease. They'll be getting $300,000 to help reach that next level.

Also, $2.2 million will be spent on neuroscience and the brain, building on the work already established at the McKnight Brain Institute, Glover said.

"President Obama said that this is the century of the brain," Glover said. "The federal government is committed to investing in it. We have the McKnight Brain Institute and can invest more to push to the forefront of that."

The Informatics Institute is getting the largest share of the pre-eminence money and will involve faculty from several colleges — Medicine, Public Health and Health Professions, Nursing, Engineering, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Agricultural and Life Sciences, and the Museum of Natural History.

The idea of creating such an institute emerged from a number of proposals that fit under the "big data" umbrella, Glover said. UF already has some expertise in that field, along with the infrastructure in the HiPerGator supercomputer to perform large-scale calculations and sort billions of terabytes of data.

"Everyone believes we are on cusp of the Big Data age," Glover said. "It makes sense to invest in that field, where we have some expertise already and can build it up."

David Norton, vice president for research at UF, will lead the effort until the university can hire a scientific director for the institute, Glover said.

"We are really excited about being able to do this," Norton said.

It also gives UF a platform to expose faculty and students campuswide to informatics, he said.

"It's where all those fields are going," Norton said. "You can't do anything where there is an emerging or high-value service industry or occupation and not appreciate the importance of information technologies."

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