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More government support for Big Data initiatives needed, advocates say

Jul. 9, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

To get an idea of the breadth and complexity of “big data,” consider a few projects highlighted under the umbrella of an Obama administration initiative last year:

■The National Institutes of Health has put the world’s largest storehouse of data on human genetic variation — enough to fill more than 30,000 DVDs — into the cloud.

■The Defense Department is seeking a 100-fold increase in analysts’ ability to extract information from texts in any language.

■The National Science Foundation is helping to underwrite “EarthCube,” a project intended to provide free, worldwide access to Earth science data.

Unveiled in March 2012, the White House’s “Big Data Research and Development Initiative” committed more than $200 million to such undertakings.

While that investment was welcome news to researchers and vendors, more needs to be done, they said.

Just as long-term federal funding helped create the Internet economy, “aggressive investment in the Big Data discipline is critical to the development of new tools, economic models and educational approaches” to make better use of the information, TechAmerica, an advocacy group for the technology industries, said in a report last fall.

“There are many very hard problems that will require research in this area,” Jim Hendler, a computer scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said in a recent interview.

But while areas like cybersecurity have benefited from sustained federal investment, other areas — including data-related fields — have not, he said.

At the National Science Foundation, a leading champion for the big data initiative, spokeswoman Lisa-Joy Zgorski said the projects announced last year already had secure funding, and thus have not been affected by sequester-related budget cuts.

She acknowledged, however, that pinched finances are limiting agencies’ ability to launch fresh undertakings. Nonetheless, NSF has received anecdotal reports of new endeavors, and it plans to announce those in early fall.

Tight funding also could slow the implementation of President Obama’s May executive order requiring open and computer-readable data to become the norm for government, said Adam Ruttenberg, a Virginia lawyer and adviser to technology companies.

“Very little happens overnight,” Ruttenberg said, adding that progress toward realizing the White House’s goal will hinge partly on how quickly agencies update hardware and other gear.

With less money to spend, he said, “you’re going to keep leveraging your technology longer, which means you’re not going to replace it as quickly.”

Even so, big data’s long-term growth and research potential remains alluring. Three months ago, Hitachi Data Systems, an information technology company that provides storage and other services, created a subsidiary to cater solely to federal agencies.

Over the past five years, combined annual growth in that sector has been running at 20 percent for Hitachi Data Systems, or HDS, Mike Tanner, president and CEO of the new company, said in an interview.

To HDS Federal, the current fiscal environment offers a selling point, he said: “How do agencies get better utilization out of existing assets and better access to their data?” ■

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