April 9, 2012

The Feds Embrace Big Data

Robert Gelber

On March 29th, the Obama Administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced the Big Data Research and Development Initiative. John Holdren, President of the OSTP announced the program along with representatives from six government agencies.

The OSTP has defined the initiative into the following broad categories:

•         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.

•         Expand the workforce needed to develop and use big data technologies.

Datanami’s Nicole Hemsoth has been following the initiative and discussed a number of programs emerging from the US government’s $200 million investment. Most of the major agencies are getting into the act, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Department of Energy (DOE),  the Department of the Interior, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Through the initiative, DARPA will be winding up the XDATA program. XDATA’s focus is to “develop computational techniques and software tools for analyzing large volumes of structured and unstructured data (tabular, relational, textual, etc).” Users of the project will be able to utilize open source software toolkits. A primary goal is the creation of scalable algorithms for large, structured and unstructured data.

Under the DOE’s Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) program, the Scalable Data Management, Analysis and Visualization (SDAV) Institute at Berkeley Lab will assist in massive dataset management and visualization. With $25 million allocated over the next five years, the institute will continue development on existing SciDAC projects like ParaView and VisIt.

Another DOE-based big data project will be done under purview of the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Climate Research Facility, which is part of the agency’s Biological and Environmental Research Program (BER).  ARM’s main mission is to improve the science underlying the interaction between atmospheric processes and radiation. The data collected, which utilizes a number of disparate data sources, currently acts as a resource for more than 100 peer-reviewed papers annually. ARM will likely use its funding to improve data collection and analytics.

Another project recipient will be the US Geological Survey (under the Department of Interior). Through the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, the USGS has been the source of numerous geological science grants. Research there includes projects ranging from understanding mercury risks in Western North America, to predicting earthquake recurrence and magnitude, as well as surveying ecosystems to determine resiliency during global change . Looking forward, the USGS will continue to fund similar data intensive studies as part of the big data initiative.

Homeland security is also slated for funding under the initiative. In collaboration with Rutgers and Purdue University, the Department of Homeland Security will fund research at the Center for Excellence on Visualization and Data Analytics (CVADA). The primary goal of the work will be to harness first responder data in an effort to reduce downtime during natural disasters and other emergencies. The center is a member of the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate Centers of Excellence (COE) network. COE’s are partnerships between the government and any combination of academia or industry to solve problems and provide training to agency members.

Using the massive amount of data it has already collected, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will launch BioSense 2.0. The program is set to determine the “feasibility of regional and national coordination for public health situation awareness through an interoperable network of systems, built on exiting state and local capabilities.” Looking to retain current advantages that the system provides, the CDC is looking to reduce costs and add capacity by updating the BioSense architecture.

Also receiving big data funding is the CDC’s Special Bacterial Reference Laboratory. The facility will be tasked with identification and classification of unknown bacteria. Armed with this knowledge, the center will be better prepared to detect outbreaks.

Datanami’s last big data winner is DARPA’s machine reading program, which looks to replace human data analysts with appliances equipped with advanced language processing capabilities. Ultimately, the goal is to supply nearly real-time language understanding for mission-critical operations. The program has already begun and is expected to complete later this year


Almost all government organizations have the same big data challenges as those experienced by businesses. This $200 million federal investment is intended to provide agencies with the tools and support they will need to grapple with their particular data sets. Vendors will most likely get a boost from investment as they look to provide software, hardware, and support services for these programs.

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Full story at Datanami

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