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Big Data

Big Data creates numerous opportunities for driving research and development, increasing productivity and transforming public and private sector organisations. RCUK is capitalising on this with their innovative investment “Big Data and Energy Efficient Computing”. This recognises the enormous potential of Big Data for the UK economy with a total sum of £189 million to invest in its exploitation. There is no official definition for Big Data; however, RCUK describes it as more than just ‘large amounts’ of data, and it tends to be beyond the ability of typical software tools to capture, store, manage and/or analyse.

Big Data and Energy Efficient Computing is a vital part of RCUK’s Investing for Growth: Capital Infrastructure for the 21st Century. Through this investment RCUK aims to create a foundation where researchers, users and industry can work together to create enhanced opportunities for scientific discovery and development. RCUK has undeniably played a leading role in Big Data technology; this timeline shows RCUK's extensive influence on Health, Infrastructure, Technology and Society and Communication, an influence which continues to grow to this day.

Find out more about the individual Research Council investments below:

The AHRC embraces the potential opportunities for transformative research in the arts and humanities offered by developments in Big Data. It also recognises the distinctive and creative contributions that the arts and humanities can make to the development of approaches to the use of big data, for example in terms of developing new types of visualisation and representation and exploring issues around privacy and trust as well as intellectual property and copyright.

The AHRC has an important leadership role in supporting the development of the new or enhanced skills and competencies that will be needed in, for example, the potential of innovative technologies and data analysis in order to fully exploit the potential of ‘big data’ across the full range of arts and humanities disciplines. These will need to be developed alongside traditional disciplinary expertise.

Big data potentially connects to a number of AHRC’s wider priority areas as outlined in its strategy for 2013-2018, including the creative and cultural economy. We are keen to explore the potential to deepen and expand the way in which the people, skills and research we support in relation to big data can contribute to creativity and innovation as well as to community and public life and how they can bring cultural, intellectual and economic benefits to the UK and the wider world. Effective use of big data has the potential to drive a step-change in the way the creative and cultural economy engages with data which could deliver significant direct benefits for the sector as well as supporting advances in arts and humanities research.

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Bioscience research is an increasingly data driven discipline. BBSRC’s investment will develop crucial resources for the analysis and re-use of biological data spanning their remit. Investments will emphasize the need for resources to be sustainable and resource providers to be engaged with the user communities they serve.

BBSRC’s investment will make use of their Bioinformatics and Biological Resources Fund to develop e-resources such as databases and software suites underpinning UK bioscience research. It will also coordinate with existing investments in the biological e-science landscape both nationally and internationally.

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The nature of research is becoming increasingly collaborative and the Research Data Facility (RDF) aims to recognise and address this by delivering a service for researchers and other research bases to:

  • Share data
  • Combine different datasets in new ways to address inter-disciplinary problems
  • Curate and make data widely available
  • Improve data reusability

The RDF will be available to all UK researchers, providing access to common databases and enabling simulated and experimental data to be combined for greater understanding.

Data has the potential to transform public and private sector organisations, drive research and development, and increase productivity and innovation. The enormous volume and complexity of data that is now being collected by government departments, businesses and other organisations represents a significant resource within the UK which can be used to the mutual benefit of academic research, organisations and society as a whole.

The ESRC are investing in a Big Data Network in order to help optimise this resource. Divided into three phases, the Big Data Network will shape our knowledge of society and help us prepare and evaluate better government policies in the future.

Phase 1 - the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN)

In Phase 1 we have invested in the development of the Administrative Data Research Network (ADRN) which will provide access to de-identified administrative data collected by government departments for research use. Such data, made accessible for research in ways that prevent the identification of individuals, will provide a robust evidence-base to inform research, and policy development, implementation and evaluation.

Phase 2 - Business and Local Government Data

In Phase 2 we are supporting the establishment of four Data Research Centres with a focus on Business and Local Government Data. The Data Research Centres will make data, routinely collected by business and local government organisations, accessible for academics to undertake research that makes a difference: shaping public policies and making business, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective as well as shaping wider society. Data will be made available by the owners in ways that prevent the identification of individuals.

Phase 3 - Third Sector and Social Media Data

Phase 3, further details of which will be released later in 2014, will focus primarily on third sector data and social media data.

Public dialogue on the use of large data sets

In partnership with the Office for National Statistics (ONS), we have conducted a series of public dialogues across the UK to understand how people view using and linking administrative data for research. A report of these dialogues will be available in March 2014.

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The potential to use large biomedical datasets to develop new treatments, diagnostics and improve healthcare is transformational. Building on the UK’s vast wealth of healthcare and medical research data, the MRC is making major investments in bio and health informatics.

The MRC in partnership with two other Research Councils, three UK Health Departments and four major medical research charities have provided over £90m to (i) support technical and physical infrastructures to acquire, store and integrate large datasets (ii) build research capacity in specialist skills needed to interrogate complex data and (iii) carry out analysis and linkage of large and complex data sets such as genomics and information within electronic health records.

There are four parts to MRC informatics research funding:

  • The MRC has coordinated a 10 funding partner consortium to establish four e-Health Informatics Research Centres (e-HIRCs.) These centres are based at UCL, Manchester, Swansea and Dundee and involve over 19 universities and two MRC Units across the UK. The purpose of this £17.5m investment is to provide training and career development opportunities in using large health datasets for research and carry out cutting edge research using e-health datasets from healthcare and research.

  • The MRC has invested an additional £20m into the four e-HIRCs to create a distributed virtual institute - the Farr Institute of Health Informatics Research. The funding provided new digital infrastructure to facilitate data sharing, development of data standards and enhancement of research facilities including data safe havens.

  • The 10 funding partners have committed £1.5m to support a UK Health informatics research network. The Network will bring together the Farr institute and informatics expertise from across the UK research community. The Network will focus on the following areas:

    • Coordinating training and career development opportunities within informatics;
    • Developing methodologies and standards in use of complex datasets
    • Engaging with the public to promote better understanding of the benefits of health records research;
    • Provide an interface for collaborations with industry and the NHS.

The four e-HIRCs and the Network were formally launched by the Minister for University and Science in May 2013.

  • The MRC has invested a further £39.1M through a Medical Bioinformatics initiative. The aim of this initiative is to support improved linkage between large scale genomic and phenotype data and electronic health records. Key areas for funding include:

    • Research linkage between basic genomic information, complex phenotypes, and clinical data sets
    • Improving informatics and computational approaches to understanding mechanisms of human disease – from the cellular level through to the whole disease phenotype
    • Analytical capabilities to interrogate heterogeneous data, and interpretation of very large and rich datasets.

To date this initiative has funded six awards based at the University of Leeds, University of Oxford, MRC/UVRI Uganda Research Unit, University of Warwick & University of Swansea, University College London and Imperial College London. These investments in medical bioinformatics complement the Farr Institute and Network by building new ways of linking across complex biological and clinical data to solve key medical challenges.

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NERC’s environmental big data investments will provide the cyber-infrastructure to improve access to big data, enable the running of complex environmental models and the integration of large environmental datasets to promote further scientific understanding and working with partners the exploitation of NERC knowledge through the development of products and services that directly address the needs of business, government and society.

To achieve this, between 2013-2015 NERC is investing in:

  • JASMIN: Compute and Storage capacity of the JASMIN Data Computing Facility, including batch computing, a virtual hosting service and a private cloud, all connected to high performance data storage.

  • CEMS (Climate & Environmental Monitoring from Space facility): Further development of the academic component (hosted by NERC/STFC), to enable the research community to access and manipulate high-volume Earth observation data , and support the link (via the Satellite Applications Catapult) to data exploitation by commercial partners, customers and end-users.

  • Cloud-based software infrastructure to support environmental science: Building upon technology demonstrated in the Environmental Virtual Observatory pilot, a range of resources (including, data retrieval, interactive visualisation, statistical analysis and modelling tools), will be provided within the cloud.

  • Environmental Data Big Data Capital Assets across the research community: These assets enable the handling of Environmental Big Data and increase the exploitation of environmental data for science and end-user engagement.

NERC is currently developing an Environmental Information Strategy which will include the use and exploitation of their Big Data Investments.

Energy Efficient Computing

Advancements in computing technology have traditionally focused on increasing performance over lowering energy consumption; however, energy use is steadily escalating as performance power rises and is now becoming an important issue to tackle. The Energy Efficient Computing investment managed by STFC aims to address this concern by developing advanced computing technologies that are not only capable of handling Big Data and various other applications but also contain state-of-the-art energy storage facilities. The Hartree Centre at Daresbury together with its academic and industrial partners is maintaining this investment.

Energy Efficient Computing will create significant savings in science as it will handle the next generation of Big Data from large experimental initiatives such as the Square Kilometre Array (see below) and other future data-intensive science infrastructures.

SKA Platforms

The SKA radio telescope funded by STFC is a project to create a next-generation facility that will address fundamental inquiries in astronomy and physics including unanswered questions about our Universe – how the first stars and galaxies were formed after the big bang; how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe; the role of magnetism in the cosmos; the nature of gravity; and the search for life beyond Earth. The Energy Efficient Computing investment (see above) is vital for the development of Square Kilometre Array (SKA) platforms due to the requirement of vast computing power in order to process the Big Data that will be produced.

SKA platforms will be created with the objectives of:

  • Establishing a world-leading consortium of national infrastructure, academic and industry partners to address the challenges of massive dataset management, exploitation and visualisation;
  • Securing global leadership of the development of novel computing and software techniques, data transportation and science data visualisation;
  • Building a structure that enables translation of expertise and experience, driven by the astronomy challenge of SKA, into other areas of science and societal benefit.

Data for Discovery Workshop

25 March 2015, The Barbican

The overarching focus of “data for discovery” is on research data (in all its forms) and on making data discoverable and usable across disciplines and creating an innovative data environment in the UK that can sustain the excellence of the research base. It encompasses the people, skills, methods and computational infrastructure necessary to underpin a broad range of research and its application – ensuring broader benefits flow to the wider economy and society.

As a first step, RCUK hosted a workshop on 25 March 2015 to develop a strategy to guide further investment in this area. Its purpose was to provide an initial scoping of the existing landscape to identify existing resources, forthcoming innovations, gaps in the current infrastructure and interdependencies in order to be able to consider what further initiatives are needed both locally and at an RCUK level, to deliver the ambitions set out above.

More specifically, the workshop aimed to:

  • Develop the objectives and outcomes of the Strategy
  • Consider the gaps, interdependencies and/or opportunities of the current data infrastructure landscape
  • Identify areas where this approach can have a transformative effect and deliver a step change in the delivery of data infrastructure

A summary of discussions and the outputs from the event can be found in the workshop report


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