President Obama. (White House photo)

“Big data” is perhaps the hottest buzzword in technology these days. And now President Obama is jumping on the bandwagon, announcing a new $200 million R&D initiative today that’s designed to make better sense of the mountains of data being created and collected across a number of scientific disciplines, from biotechnology to geology.

“By improving our ability to extract knowledge and insights from large and complex collections of digital data, the initiative promises to help solve some the nation’s most pressing challenges,” according to a release announcing the new effort.

As part of the program, six federal departements and agencies will receive $200 million in commitments, money that

“In the same way that past Federal investments in information-technology R&D led to dramatic advances in supercomputing and the creation of the Internet, the initiative we are launching today promises to transform our ability to use Big Data for scientific discovery, environmental and biomedical research, education, and national security,” said Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The goals of the new  “Big Data Research and Development Initiative” are:

  • Advance state-of-the-art core technologies needed to collect, store, preserve, manage, analyze, and share huge quantities of data.
  • Harness these technologies to accelerate the pace of discovery in science and engineering, strengthen our national security, and transform teaching and learning; and
  • Expand the workforce needed to develop and use Big Data technologies.

In addition to those goals, the new initiative is designed to spark more scientists and engineers who are schooled in the complexities of analyzing data. As part of that effort, a new $10 million Expeditions in Computing project will be established at University of California, Berkeley. The effort will be focused on new approaches for turning data into information via machine learning, cloud computing, and crowd sourcing.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is investing $250 million annually on new ways to “make truly autonomous systems that can maneuver and make decisions on their own.” Other technologies will help military experts extract information from texts in any language, mining the information to make soldiers more prepared on the battlefield.  The DoD plans to host open prize competitions in the coming months to accelerate some of those technologies, and spark even more innovation.

In addition, the National Institutes of Health announced that the world’s largest set of data on human genetic variation – produced by the international 1000 Genomes Project – is now freely available on the Amazon Web Services. AWS is storing the 1000 Genomes Project as a publically available data set for free and researchers only will pay for the computing services that they use.

“We’re excited to help scientists gain access to this important data set by making it available to anyone with access to the Internet,” said said Deepak Singh, Ph.D. and Principal Product Manager at Amazon Web Services. “This means researchers and labs of all sizes and budgets have access to the complete 1000 Genomes Project data and can immediately start analyzing and crunching the data without the investment it would normally require in hardware, facilities and personnel. Researchers can focus on advancing science, not provisioning the resources required for their research.”

Other projects announced today include the Department of Energy’s Scientific Discovery Through Advanced Computing initiative and the US Geological Survey’s Big Data for Earth System Science program which will help understand issues such as species response to climate change, earthquake recurrence rates, and the next generation of ecological indicators.

A Webcast about the new program will air today at 11 a.m. Pacific time.


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  • Verminato

    Will Mr. Obama be pledging $200,000,000 of his own money, as he will have to print the money if he plans to donate US funds.  I believe this is a worthwhile project, but we need to start focusing on the unsustainable debt our government is amassing.  I fear if we don’t, we will be in the same situation as Greece in a short while.  This is not fair for the upcoming generations.  Pretending it’s not a problem is, as well as refusing to reduce spending is very irresponsible.

    • MHazell

      If they want to print some more money, then they need to get more gold/silver to back it up.

    • Andrew Won

      And look at what austerity has done for them (eurozone).

  • Anonymous

    You would think he would curb his spending during the campaign period, at least.  Perhaps he hasn’t heard that the American people are fed up with his spending habit.

    • MHazell

      Not everyone…

  • Anonymous

    $200 mil is a drop in the bucket considering what is being spent on social security, medicare and defense.

    The bigger problem is the goal not stated–the ability of the federal gov’t toknow more about you than facebook and google so they can ensure you are paying your fee/tax under the health care law…

    However, this is obviously a promising initiative, as long as the money for R&D is parceled to private sector researchers with good ideas.

    The goal of “Expand the workforce needed to develop and use Big Data technologies” is clearly needed.  If this sparks more young people to go into computer science or other related technology degrees, it will be very useful.

  • Guest

    Congratulations to President Obama on this initiative! I hope President Santorum continues this worthwhile project next year.

  • Anonymous

    Yawn. Big Data, a made up name to give the illusion of Obama as being on top of the trends.  It’s kind of like calling an effort to upgrade the office PCs in agencies a “quad core initiative”.  These are tools and techniques that help people do a better job of managing, mining and visualizing their data – things that are already being looked at right now.  200M is a drop in the bucket but want to bet less than 1/4 actually goes towards anything vaguely close to the “Big Data” charter?  And, I’m pretty sure everything that gets done with this money was already in the various agency’s plans.  

    And, on the police/TSA/FBI/CIA/… data analysis front, I am certain that huge chunks of their budgets is already dedicate to this kind of work.  The Utah Data Center alone is costing $2B.

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