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Big data, big plans

data_-_pink.pngIn February 2015 we announced that Warwick had been picked with Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and UCL to be one the universities that will lead the establishment of the prestigious £42m Alan Turing Institute for Data Science. This means our researchers will be at the forefront of the UK’s approach to big data.

At the time of the announcement, Professor Tim Jones, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Science, Engineering & Medicine, explained
that this development is “very much a recognition of the strength of our quality in mathematical sciences in the departments of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science in particular at Warwick has a fantastic reputation in that area. Membership of the Turing Institute is a reflection of that”.


That sounds great but what is big data? According to our academics, big data is an umbrella term which covers human interaction, potential, global problems and movement. For Professor Stephen Jarvis from the Department of Computer Science, this is the age of data and we’re only just beginning to discover that. He thinks that as we look back, thirty years from now, we’ll see this shift and the change of emphasis to data that’s knitting machines together and changing the way we live. As an umbrella term, Professor Jarvis believes that ‘big data’ means different things to different people. If you talk to a statistician, big data is developing mathematical methods to perform analysis; if you talk to a physicist, it’s the huge data sets they get from their studies in astronomy, and if you talk to a computer scientist, it’s about how you build platforms to support analysis. We’re all coming in as different bricks to lay the foundations for the subject that is big data.

quoteHowever, Associate Professor Tobias Preis of WBS has his own take. For him it’s a new form of information. It’s the type of data that’s coming from the internet revolution – information that’s being generated by human interactions in large technological systems, via the internet and also information that’s released through connected devices. It’s human interaction on a very large scale which gives us a lot of data points to better understand human behaviour and to use it, ultimately, to better forecast how human systems might develop over time.

Graham Cormode from the Department of Computer Science would point to his own experiences when defining ‘big data’: “About 15 years ago I was working with people in a field called ‘massive data’ and this was the data generated, primarily, by large internet and telecommunications companies. There was lots of information about what phone calls were happening, all the data connections, etc. We did a lot of work on the algorhythmic foundations – how you understand the data and how you can scale it up to a much larger scale – and this approach went on for some time. My initial thought when I heard about big data was to ask ‘is this just a rebranding of massive data?’ but it’s trying to capture something more than that. “The temptation when you hear ‘big data’ is to focus on ‘big’ and interpret it as meaning something large in structure and volume and that’s certainly the chief way that big data strikes you, but underlying that is the fact that it can denote a large number of other things. It can refer to a lot of the potential of working with this amount of information, it can refer to the different kinds of ideas you can have, it can refer to the fact that, before, we had focused data sets from a particular application area and you’d look at them in isolation. Now you can start to say that, across society, we have many more data sets being made available to us and so we can try to start to understand phenomena that we couldn’t before by looking at a variety of different data coming from a variety of locations.”

Judging by these comments, you might think that interest in big data is limited to the science departments. However, Professor Giorgio Riello, Department of History, would disagree. For him history has a lot of data and particularly the field of economic history which interests him. For Professor Riello, data is ‘big’ when it addresses global problems: wealth inequality, standards of living and so on. Big data applies very well to global issues.

Big data and data science are going to play a central role in how the whole world runs its business and industry inthe future. Professor Jones says that it’s an area that many disciplines and many departments are excited about. “You find big data expertise not just in Mathematics and Statistics but also in Social Sciences, the Business School, Economics, the Medical School, Life Sciences and many other departments. I see it very much as an enabler. Large data sets will enable key, cutting-edge research to be undertaken across different disciplines, bringing together expertise from different disciplines and promoting interdisciplinarity to tackle major problems that we face.”

Professor Mark Girolami from the Department of Statistics, who will lead the initiative at Warwick, has the final word on the subject: “The Alan Turing Institute is a hugely exciting development for the mathematical and statistical sciences in the UK and it will have a massive impact on my own research work. The exploitation of this new so-called big data requires the development of new cutting-edge mathematical and statistical methods to ensure we make the most of these opportunities. The Alan Turing Institute is going to enable my own group to work on these sorts of problems and take theory to algorithms to economically valuable products and services.”


You can find out more information about the progress of the Alan Turing Institute at