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David Willetts, Universities and Science Minister, recently announced £73million of funding for 55 big data projects. As illustrated in our report, cities around the world are using big data to generate savings, promote innovation and make cities better places to live and work. To date the UK has lagged behind in its use of such data. This funding provides the opportunity to unlock the potential of the masses of data routinely collected by government and private organisations and gain new insights into policy design and evaluation.
The four direct beneficiaries are the Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).
The ESRC will receive £14 million to support the establishment of Big Data Research Centres in four English universities: Essex, Glasgow, UCL and Leeds. Of particular interest is the development of an Urban Big Data Research Centre at the University of Glasgow. The Centre aims to create a safe, secure and efficient system for linking data collected across cities. This will result in new datasets on a range of urban issues including transport, employment, migration, housing and education being made available to academics.
A Data Research Centre for Smart Analytics will be based at the University of Essex. As well as making more local government and business data available to academics, the Centre aims to extend existing links with businesses. It will offer training and consultancy services to help firms maximise the value of the big data they collect and become more efficient. In this way the new analytical techniques developed through the funding will moved beyond the University.
The University of Leeds and University College London will jointly host a Consumer Data Research Centre which, among other areas, will look at the relationship between shopping habits and health outcomes.
While it is encouraging to see local government, businesses and academic research centres prepared to share more data with each other, nothing is said about making the data publically available. While privacy may be a legitimate concern, the benefits of data increase as more people are given access to it. In the USA for example, cities such as New York and Boston have seen the development of apps and service improvements through making data available to all.
In recognition of this, the AHRC will receive £4m to invest in 21 new open data projects. Here the aim is to get robust data out of the hands of a few and into the public domain. As such the projects focus on how big data can be presented in an easy to interpret and /or visual compelling way. NERC will invest £4.6m in 24 projects that will exploit existing environmental data. This includes developing the tools needed to give open access to big data, to provide computers capable of running complex environmental models and to capture real time data from sensors. Finally, the MRC will invest £50m in improving understanding of human disease through analysing biological data.
While the above projects focus on specific fields, it is hoped that the analytical and visualisation tools developed can be used to overcome common issues with big data, including working with data that needs to be analysed in real time or where large quantities of data held on paper need to be digitalised. At a time when budgets are increasingly constrained, this move to make better use of existing big data is welcome and will save money, make for increasingly informed policy and improve the functioning and performance of our cities.
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