A mine of smart data

Newcastle is to be home to a national centre doing internationally significant work on Big Data and passing on the benefit to businesses and wider society

Construction has started on a major project in Newcastle which will link academic expertise with industry and public sector to use Big Data to solve real world problems.

The National Innovation Centre for Data, NICD, will be housed in a new £50m building, the third to be located on Newcastle University’s Science Central site – where more than £350m of investment is now committed, the largest investment in academic and outside engagement in the UK this century. Newcastle University Computer Science Department ranks Number 1 in the UK for external engagement.

NICD will look at ways to unleash the potential for innovation offered by the explosive growth in digital data.

Professor Paul Watson, principal investigator for the NICD, says: “The exciting new building will act as a beacon for innovation, attracting companies from around the world, and placing the North East as a global leader in this vital area.”

The centre is being funded with £15m government financial support matched by £15m investment from Newcastle University alongside other investment in Newcastle’s Digital Institute and Cloud Innovation Centre. Prof Watson also pays tribute to the support of Dynamo North East and Newcastle City Council in lobbying to have the centre located in Newcastle.

The role of Dynamo and the city council was crucial in working with us to frame plans and in persuading the government.

The building is scheduled for opening in 2020 but NICD will start working in 2018 in existing university facilities.

In looking at Big Data it will be addressing an issue with huge implications across all areas of society and which has the potential to revolutionise economic productivity: how to analyse and extract benefit from the vast amounts of data generated in an increasingly digitised world?

Prof Watson explains: “It’s easy collecting data and there are mountains of it around, but the real challenge is to extract value from it. That’s our area of research and we have developed tools and techniques and expertise in that area.

“For a few years, we have realised in talking to companies that they were struggling with the same problem. They were acquiring more and more data and they wanted to either optimise their existing products or to develop new profitable ones. NICD will work with many hundreds of companies in the North East and beyond every year to help them use their data to transform their organisations.’’

NICD will research and develop analytical tools such as text mining, machine learning and cognitive analytics. A large part of its mission will be to teach industry the skills needed to use these tools.

“Activities will be based on things like awareness raising which might be events or it could be training so that people understand the opportunities,’’ says Prof Watson. “We will run joint projects with organisations to work with them on some data project and to develop their skills so they can go back to their companies and continue to use those skills in a variety of different ways.’’

NICD will work with all the universities in the region on this training, possibly developing qualifications.

Also to be housed in the national innovation centre will be the National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) and the National Institute for Health Research Innovation Observatory (NIHRIO). NICD will work closely with both of these organisations, partnering, for example, NICA on mining and analysing data on lifestyles gathered through wearable sensors.

But Prof Watson believes the contribution of NICD to the UK will be vast in many areas.

He says: “The bottom line is there is a huge potential to generate wealth and societal benefit, for example by using data for healthcare, but the problem is the skills shortage and that is what we will be addressing.’’

“The role of Dynamo and the city council was crucial in working with us to frame plans and in persuading the government.’’
Professor Paul Watson, principal investigator for NICD

The National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA)

The National Innovation Centre for Ageing (NICA) works with research specialists, businesses and the public to facilitate the commercialisation of key products, services and technologies to help people live better, longer lives.

Prof Watson said: “NICA is not focusing on drugs or medicine. It is focusing on products and services either to assist people in getting older or to help companies to tap into the market for older people.’’

Professor Mike Catt, director of NICA added: “We will provide national leadership on the global question ‘how do we age well?’

“By 2050, the number of people in the world aged 60 years or over is projected to more than double, reaching nearly 2.1 billion. This globally ageing population presents many challenges around quality of life and health – as well as multiple economic and social opportunities.

“Similarly, the explosion of digital data has the potential to transform business and public services products worldwide, offering huge opportunity for the investigation and application of new processes and services.’’