Thinking Big in Michigan: One University’s Dedication to Data's Future

Big Data is Next Big man on Campus

This past Saturday at the University of Michigan, the hometown Wolverines beat Rutgers 49-16 in front of 109,879 fans at Michigan Stadium, a cathedral of college football.

They call the stadium the Big House, but for Michigan, this fall has also been about Big Data.

The well-respected higher-ed institution recently announced that it would spend $100 million over five years on its new Data Science Initiative. The ambition here is immense. The DSI will tie together three existing institutes that already have 40 faculty members. Over the next four years, the program will hire another 35 faculty. It will also provide new programs to train graduate and undergraduate students in fields associated with data science, a much-needed boost to provide talent and opportunity in an industry that is booming.

So why is UofM placing such a large bet? The answer is at once simple and illustrative: The university believes Big Data is the key to solving the key societal challenges and business opportunities of our time.

Big data can provide dramatic insights into the nature of disease, climate change, social behavior, business and economics, engineering, and the basic biological and physical sciences.
Mark Schlissel, President, University of Michigan

"Big data can provide dramatic insights into the nature of disease, climate change, social behavior, business and economics, engineering, and the basic biological and physical sciences," said President Mark Schlissel in a statement announcing the program. "U-M is in a unique position to leverage this investment in data science for the good of society."

In announcing the program, Michigan officials offered several examples of programs already underway that they hope will serve as models and inspiration for the kind of work that can be leveraged by the DSI:

  • University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center: In an Internet of Things-focused application, researchers are gathering data from 3,000 connected cars and trucks driving the streets of its hometown, Ann Arbor. The DSI will help the center further its transportation studies by assisting with the collection, storage and analysis of the data so it can be dramatically expanded in scope.
  • Medicine and public health: To accelerate the transition of discoveries made by basic research to practical patient care, UofM researchers will use Big Data to develop new models for biomedical and health research. The hope is that a data-driven approach on a large scale will hasten the development of more precise diagnosis and personalized medicine.
  • Teaching and learning: The DSI will turn the microscope on its own university to explore ways Big Data can provide insight into how effective teaching and learning occur. The idea is to find ways to provide more personalized instruction to students on a giant scale.

Health care. Finance. Transportation. Environment. Education. Pharmaceuticals. The scope is so broad that the university has said that almost every academic department will be involved with Big Data to some degree.

It will be thrilling to watch this project come together. If Big Data really is going to change the world, the University of Michigan aims to claim its spot on the front line of the revolution.

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