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Getting smart with big data: UEA partner for flagship new research centre

Thu, 06 Feb 2014

Data experts at the University of East Anglia will soon be able to help businesses, healthcare providers and council services better understand the goldmine of information they collect thanks to a multi-million pound boost.

The project to create a Data Research Centre for Smart Analytics is being led by the University of Essex, in partnership with UEA and the University of Kent, who together form the Eastern Academic Research Consortium (ARC).

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), it will place all three universities at the forefront of the UK's Big Data network and provide a national resource for academics.

The Data Research Centre, based at the University of Essex, will make data, routinely collected by business and local government organisations, accessible for academics so that they can undertake outstanding research in the social sciences in ways that safeguard individuals' identities. That research will provide a sound evidence-base to inform policy development, implementation and evaluation. This requires not just the development of a safe, secure and efficient system for linking, managing and analysing such data, founded on secure technologies, but also trust between data owners, researchers and other interested parties including the public.

The aim is for the centre to become a national centre of expertise for data users across academic and non-academic sectors, offering a vibrant environment to foster and enable innovative research by supporting business, local government and academics to harness the potential of complex big data where traditional analysis techniques may not apply. The centre will also offer big data training programmes and bespoke consultancy for businesses.

Research at UEA will focus on smart analysis of data collected by local government and businesses who work with them, to improve health and social care, support vulnerable people, and map access to green spaces. The university will also run a series of public debates on the ethical issues surrounding the collection and use of big data.

Social care economics expert Prof Ruth Hancock from UEA's Norwich Medical School is leading the university's involvement with the project.

She said: "When we talk about 'big data' what we mean is data that is vast, complex and difficult to analyse. Local governments and businesses who work with them hold data on the services they provide to people which can be used, for example, to identify smarter ways to provide efficient and fair services .

"We are very excited about the opportunity this new data centre provides for researchers to work with businesses and local government bodies to make the best use of the data they collect.

"With the right analysis, big data can give organisations, both large and small, the competitive edge by helping them improve their performance.

"The interdisciplinary nature of research here at UEA will help local communities - for example by mapping public access to green spaces, and developing effective services in social care and healthcare."

The minister for universities and science David Willets MP said: "Making the most of large and complex data is a huge priority for government as it has the potential to transform public and private sector organisations, drive research and development, increase productivity and innovation, and enable market-changing products and services. The new data research centres will help the UK grasp these opportunities and get ahead in the global race."

Prof Paul Boyle, chief executive of the ESRC said: "We are delighted that the next phase of funding for this Big Data initiative has been announced, which builds on the success of the first phase. The sheer volume of data that is now being created presents a significant resource that can be used for the mutual benefit of organisations and academic research. This in turn can help shape our knowledge of society and help us prepare and evaluate better government policies in the future."

UEA will work with partners including Norfolk County Council. Steve Morphew, cabinet member for Finance, Corporate and Personnel, said: "Norfolk County Council is committed to better use of information and data to support and inform both the commissioning and delivery of public services. We recently announced a ground-breaking partnership with Hewlett-Packard (HP), Microsoft and Vodafone to implement a county-wide information hub to better allow the safe and secure sharing of information. Through this process HP will build and develop a new Big Data and Informatics programme at UEA - an example of a burgeoning new and strategic relationship between the council, their partners, UEA and HP.

"UEA is a global leader on the exploitation of big data and information in a number of fields such as climate change research, the announcement of this new data centre initiative represents a further step forward in Norfolk's drive to become the world leader in the use and management of data.

"The County Council will support the centre through regulated provision of information and is committed to working closely with the UEA to support research and improve local public services."

UEA deputy vice chancellor Prof David Richardson said: "The ESRC big data centre represents a milestone in the establishment of the Eastern ARC network and in strengthening our strategic partnership with Norfolk County Council. In focussing on one of the eight great technologies in which the UK is set to be a global leader and addressing the needs of health and social care provision this data centre continues to place the East of England at the forefront of tackling the grand challenges of the future."

Further ESRC Business and Local Government Data Research Centres will be based at Glasgow, UCL and Leeds Universities.