White House promotes new partnerships as it seeks to make better use of ‘big data’

November 11, 2013

The Obama administration plans Tuesday to announce a new set of partnerships that enlist private companies, nonprofits, academics and others in an effort to harness big data to solve national problems.

The new alliances come more than a year and a half after the administration established $200 million in big data initiatives aimed at sorting through the massive reams of information collected by the government to glean new insights.

“History is full of the government making a small foundational investment, and then there being an investment by the private sector and by universities and by other organizations that dwarfs the original investment,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Among the new partnerships is CancerLinq, a five-year, $80 million initiative headed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology with support of foundations and private companies to analyze cancer patient experiences that have thus far not been part of cancer research.

Allen S. Lichter, chief executive of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, said Monday that most of the existing research on cancer care focuses on clinical trials — which represent only a small portion of cancer patients and typically not the oldest or the most sick.

The vast majority of care data is “siloed in electronic systems inside practices and hospitals, where it is never shared or aggregated or mined for insights,” Lichter said. “We’ve reached the point today where it is technically possible to bring a great deal of that data together and to learn from it. In many respects, this is the holy grail of medicine.”

He said the effort will focus on standardizing health records; even though many oncology practices and hospitals rely on electronic records, there are more than 20 different systems.

“The skill is not so much in gathering the data, the skill is in beginning to normalize the data so that you’re putting things together in meaningful ways,” Lichter said.

In another new partnership to be announced Tuesday, Amazon Web Services and NASA have agreed to make available to the public NASA Earth Exchange, a network now used by earth science researchers to share information. Amazon Web Services plans to host a significant amount of NASA’s earth-observing data as a public data set under the agreement. (Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

Matt Wood, general manager for data science at Amazon Web Services, said the shift will make the data available to members of the public, broadening not only the number of potential users but also the kinds of analysis that might be undertaken.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development program are hosting an event Tuesday to further discuss these kinds of big data partnerships. (This reporter is set to moderate one of the panels).

“Data today represents a sort of transformative currency,” said Farnam Jahanian of the National Science Foundation’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate. “It’s creating some tremendous opportunities.”

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