President's Blog

Big Data, Big Opportunity

With Kirk Heffelmire

Every time you search on Google, shop on Amazon, update your status on Facebook, use a navigation app on your smartphone, or click a link on the Internet, you are generating data. The same goes for when you commute to work, take a test, fill out a survey, go to the doctor, play a game, text a friend, use your credit card, or take a photo.

We are constantly producing data. And for those who can quickly collect, analyze, and apply this information, that data can be mined for gold.

The applications of so-called “big data” in business and government are endless.  Also in research, whether in health (just look at how Google uses our collective data searches to track the flu every season in the United States) or the social sciences.

This is good news for Mason, because we are squarely positioned at the center of the data capital of the United States and can play a significant role in leveraging big data for good.

According to a recent report by the Northern Virginia Technology Council (in collaboration with George Washington University and the consulting firm Attain), about 64 percent of the new jobs added over the next three years in the surveyed organizations will be in big data and analytics. That amounts to more than 13,000 professionals who need to trained.

These trends make sense given that 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic passes through Northern Virginia on a daily basis and the fact that just the companies that responded to the NVTC survey generate 1.03 petabytes of new data on an average day, and are analyzing, processing, or saving more than 40 petabytes of data every day (a petabyte of storage space is enough for more than 330 million camera phone pictures, 223,000 DVDs, or more than 2,000 years of music).

In addition to our location, Mason has some unique capabilities that will be instrumental in this space.  We have faculty members in various departments–from computer science to statistics, astrophysics, health administration, public policy and business–who are either developing new analytical tools or applying big data techniques to key scientific, policy, business or social issues.  We offer a host of courses related to big data across disciplines.  And the Volgenau School of Engineering just introduced a master’s degree program in data analytics engineering that was one of only five data analytics engineering master’s degree programs in the country when it was announced.

Our goal is to prepare students to leverage new analytic techniques and paradigms of data-driven decision-making to challenges faced by private and public organizations, to create new value-added services, inform strategic and tactical decisions, and discover novel answers to some of the most pressing challenges of our time whether in economic development, health, security, or climate change.

But as committed as we are to playing a central role in big data, we know we can’t do it alone.  Cooperation among business and public organizations, funding agencies and researchers will be essential to seize this exciting economic and scientific opportunity in northern Virginia.  The obstacles are not trivial.  A group of researchers organized by the NSF as the Social Observatories Coordinating Network has warned about the difficulties of accessing private data for scientific research, as well as the perils of amateurization and Balkanization of analysis.  New tools open up new opportunities and create new challenges.  Big data is no exception.

It is nevertheless encouraging that universities and colleges in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia are doing their part to advance the economic, scientific and social potential of big data.  For example, together, we awarded almost 9,000 big data and analytics-related degrees during the 2011-12 academic year. That accounted for more than 70 percent of such degrees awarded nationwide during that span. Mason alone awarded more than 1,000 big data and analytics-related degrees in 2011-12.

There’s much more we can and should do.  The future in big data is bright and I look forward to working with the faculty in turning big data into a big opportunity for the university.