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Managing big data

John Holdren, director of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, doesn’t mince words when it comes to his department’s ambitious plans for using big data.

“In the same way that past federal investments in information technology R&D led to dramatic advances in supercomputing and the creation of the Internet, the initiative we are launching today promises to transform our ability to use big data for scientific discovery, environmental and biomedical research, education, and national security,” Holdren said in March.

The initiative in question is a $200 million effort the Obama administration launched to investigate uses for big data at five major agencies: the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Department, the Energy Department and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Six months later, the ball has started to roll: On Oct. 3, NSF and NIH announced their first funding awards through the big data initiative. The eight awards, totaling $15 million, were granted to widely diverse projects. Among them are a collaborative effort by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Minnesota to simulate language processing in the brain and a Brown University project that seeks to design and test algorithmic and statistical techniques for analyzing large-scale, heterogeneous and so-called noisy cancer datasets.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface,” Suzi Iacono, a senior science adviser at NSF and co-chairwoman of the Big Data Senior Steering Group, told FCW. She added that more awards will be presented in the months to come.

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