Getting smart with big data: Essex announces flagship new research centre

The University of Essex today confirmed its place at the forefront of the UK’s Big Data network with the announcement of a new Data Research Centre for Smart Analytics.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for five years, the new £5 million Centre will be led by Essex, working in partnership with the Universities of East Anglia and Kent, who together form the Eastern Academic Research Consortium (ARC), and with partners in business and local government.

The Data Research Centre will make data, routinely collected by business and local government organisations, accessible for academics as a national resource in order to 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.

Announced as part of £14 million to fund the second phase of the ESRC’s investment in big data, the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, said today: “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.”

This latest funding, part of a pot of £64 million announced in October 2013, will be used to support the establishment of four ESRC Business and Local Government Data Research Centres at Essex, Glasgow, UCL and Leeds Universities.

With the right analytics, big data can give organisations, both large and small, the competitive edge by helping them improve their business decisions, as well as offer insight into how they can expand.

What the Centre at Essex will also offer is a suite of big data solutions – from training to consultancy to help the business and local government communities maximise the value of their big data to research the drivers of economic growth and the provision of services.

Its data storage facility for business and local government data will allow researchers to access data in a secure environment that guarantees confidentiality of the information. The centre will also manage, curate and link the data in such a way that new insights can be made available to the users. The Centre takes advantage of the existing experience and expertise in the field of secure big data storage and safe access at Essex within the UK Data Service (UKDS) and the new Administrative Data Service (ADS) based there.

Welcoming the announcement, University of Essex Vice-Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster said the Centre would be central to showcasing the University’s excellence in big data analytics.

“This is a fantastic initiative for Essex and really helps us position ourselves as number one in the UK and Europe for harvesting data analytics and applying the data in new and exciting ways to support our business partners,” he said.

The Data Research Centre will be based within the University’s new £21 million state-of-the-art building which will house the Essex Business School, which carries out business-based research and collaborations with industry on big data, and is adjacent to the Knowledge Gateway development, providing a high quality environment for innovative business start-ups and SMEs.

The University has an international reputation for the collection, curation, management and analysis of big data and is home to the UK Data Archive – the UK’s largest collection of digital research data in the social sciences and humanities.

The School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at Essex already collaborates with companies around the world on analysing large data sets and is also working with the South East Local Enterprise Partnership to make the University a leading centre of excellence for big data analytics.

Project leader and Director of the new Centre, Professor Vania Sena, of Essex Business School, said: “Some companies and local authorities just do not have the knowledge and skills to exploit the vast amount of data they produce as part of their day-to-day activities to their advantage.

“The ESRC Data Research Centre for Smart Analytics will become a place where solutions are created and data are used in a smart way to improve their performance. They are sitting on a potential goldmine but often they don’t have the skills and the knowledge to use that data in a smart way.”

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 a comprehensive suite of big data training programmes – from a basic introduction to big data techniques to sophisticated training for data scientists. Bespoke consultancy for businesses will also be offered, with future hopes of creating general data solutions for SMEs.

Operating as part of the ESRC Big Data Network, the Centre will provide new opportunities for data linkage projects at national, regional and company level.

 

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