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A High-Tech Home for Data Exploration

A High-Tech Home for Data Exploration

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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In the fall of 2012, as the storm that would become Hurricane Sandy was gaining strength in the Caribbean, one question was on the minds of residents up and down the eastern seaboard: Where would the storm hit? On both sides of the Atlantic, weather analysts combed through massive amounts of data on the so-called superstorm, trying to predict its path. While American analysts expected the storm to graze the coast before turning out towards sea, the "European model" predicted that Sandy would take a sharp left turn and head straight for New York and New Jersey.

Thankfully, officials in those two states heeded this warning, and prepared accordingly. That the devastation wreaked by the storm was not far worse is a testament to data analysis and high performance computing. In an era when the amount of data at our fingertips is growing exponentially, it has never been more vital to know how to understand it. As the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy shows, reading data can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

"The U.S. and European models eventually converged," said Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson in a recent speech. "But, the Europeans got it right first, giving more time for those in Sandy's path to prepare... no doubt saving lives. The difference in the early predictions lay with the strength of the analytical models and the computational power."

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), located in upstate New York, understands the importance of "big data," high performance computing, and webscience, as well as any center of higher learning in the country. Since its founding in 1824, nearly two centuries ago, the nation's oldest technological research university has been at the forefront of discovery and innovation. In the university's first decades, its researchers worked to come to grips with the many changes being wrought by the industrial revolution. This new frontier of data analysis is no less daunting—and just as important.

To meet this challenge, Rensselaer announced in the summer of 2013 the formation of the Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA), a university-wide initiative to find new ways to understand and benefit from the ever-rising tide of information. It is an opportunity, Jackson says, for the university's researchers to take the reins of a "data-driven, supercomputer-powered, web-enabled, globally interconnected world."

"Working across disciplines and sectors," she says, "they will apply powerful new tools and technologies to access, aggregate, and analyze data from multiple sources and in multiple formats, in order to address challenges and opportunities across the spectrum, including in basic research, environment and energy, water resources, healthcare and biomedicine, business and finance, public policy, and national security."

"From improving healthcare, to environmental stewardship, to creating new educational technologies, researchers at Rensselaer are known internationally for using data science to attack some of the world's most pressing problems."

To meet these grand goals, IDEA will be anchored in six of the university's strongest areas: high-performance computing, web science, data science, network science, cognitive computing, and immersive technologies. At a university already well known for its advances in supercomputers—including its Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations supercomputing center and the IBM Watson computer, which became famous for dominating human opponents on Jeopardy!—IDEA is a natural fit. Vice President for Research Jonathan Dordick called Rensselaer, "a leader in the fundamentals and applications of computation science."

"With the formation of the Rensselaer IDEA," he continued, "we will innovate new data-driven solutions to important and complex challenges facing every family, every community, and every nation."

First projects for IDEA include collaborating with Mount Sinai to develop better healthcare analytics, in order to help realize the dream of personalized medicine—when every level of treatment, from diagnosis to lifestyle advisement, is personally tailored to the patient through DNA analysis. Working with the Center for Architecture Science & Ecology, IDEA will be analyzing data necessary to design urban footprints with zero net energy, and a self-regulating "building biome." And because any mention of big data raises concerns about online privacy, IDEA will tackle the question of cybersecurity, looking for ways that information can be used without being abused.

"From improving healthcare, to environmental stewardship, to creating new educational technologies, researchers at Rensselaer are known internationally for using data science to attack some of the world's most pressing problems," says James Hendler, head of the Rensselaer Department of Computer Science. "The Rensselaer IDEA will create a collaborative space where our faculty and students can explore the intersections of different leading-edge data research, and then use what they find to jump-start new programs, products, and companies. A key focus of the IDEA is data-driven innovation, which builds on the Rensselaer legacy of pushing forward the frontiers of basic science and changing the world with outstanding inventions and applications."

Mayor Bloomberg's support for the sciences, says Jackson, has made possible the sort of innovation that IDEA hopes to build on.

"Attention goes to that which we value," she says. "Mayor Bloomberg clearly understands the extraordinary value and transformational capacity of scientific discovery and technological innovation. His focused attention has helped spark, enable, and expedite a more robust innovation ecosystem; one that fosters collaborations among the business, academic, and government sectors, and is an attractor of talent and bold ideas."

Photo: RPI students in John Ting-Yung Wen's Robotics Lab.