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Data-Driven Answers To Grand Challenges and Emergent Opportunities: The Rensselaer IDEA — A Model

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

“With All of this Data, Will We Come to the Right Conclusions?” – Tutorial Session

Aspen Ideas Festival 2013
Aspen Institute, Aspen, CO

Sunday, June 30, 2013


Good morning and welcome.  

There is a significant transformation underway globally in the way we make discoveries, make decisions, make products, make connections, and ultimately make progress.

The transformation is being driven by the extraordinarily rapid expansion in the creation and availability of data from multiple sources, and ever more powerful analytical and computational capacity that is generating new information from the deluge of data.

Let me illustrate.

Last fall, as “Superstorm Sandy” was beginning to gather steam in the Caribbean, five days before it slammed into New Jersey and New York, United States forecasters were predicting a monster storm, but were uncertain of its path. By most indications, the unusually powerful and complex storm would graze the coast, but move back out into the North Atlantic. However, there were steady reports of the “European model” predicting a sharp turn into the coast of New Jersey and New York, with potentially devastating consequences. 

The U.S. and European models eventually converged. But, the Europeans got it right first, giving more time for those in Sandy’s path to prepare...no doubt saving lives. The difference in the early predictions lay with the strength of the analytical models and the computational power.

As intimated by what happened with Sandy, newly available data, and how it is accessed and used, will become an ever more vital force that shapes and changes our world.

We live in a data-driven, web-enabled, supercomputer-powered, globally-interconnected world. We need to harness the power of these new tools and technologies—working across disciplines and sectors and regions, building a strong innovation ecosystem—to address the great challenges and opportunities of our time: in energy security, health, food, water, and national security, as well as the linked challenges of climate change and allocation of scarce resources. And, we need to prepare the next generation to succeed and lead in this new world.

The world is awash in data.  Data is being generated by each of us, about each of us, and collected all around each of us.

There are satellites above us collecting data on air movements, sensors below us collecting data on ground movements, and cameras all around us collecting data on our movements.

Think about what is going on right now, in this room: No doubt sensors are measuring room temperature, medical devices are measuring heartbeats, and your communication devices are receiving and sending tweets, emails, text messages, GPS signals.

The question today is, “With all of this data, will we come to the right conclusions?”

The answer is, it depends….

Data is the new natural resource of the 21st century.  As with all valuable resources, it is important how we generate it, how we mine it, how we manage it, how we preserve it, and how we connect it. 

 There is a rapidly growing network of networks—the so-called “Internet of Things”—on which our daily lives depend, including power, water, retail, financial, manufacturing, and social networks—all driven by the interplay of data, physical systems, high performance computing, and analytical models.

Big data and network science are merging—marrying the Internet of data with the Internet of Things, and this too will be world changing.

Data is not the answer. It is the input.

If we take full advantage of emerging technologies, new opportunities will be created by the ability—with smart analytics—to anticipate and predict events: weather, health, or economic events, for example, making those events easier to manage.

The intersections and interactions are complex. The outcomes can be powerful, and risky.

Powerful—in that we will be able to see connections that we would not have seen otherwise, and we will have better predictive abilities.

Risky—in that the interconnectivity can lead to sometimes abhorrent, and certainly unintended consequences.

As we saw in such important and devastating ways in the aftermath of “Superstorm Sandy,” or the tsunami in Japan, the interconnectivity of energy, communication, and transportation systems presents enormous intersecting opportunities and, at the same time, intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences.

The level of interdependence of these interconnected networks will grow rapidly, and present even greater risks, but even greater opportunities—if we are able to take advantage of the ubiquity of data, the interconnectivity of data and things, and powerful new analytical and computational capabilities and immersive technologies—to stay ahead of the curve.

New economic and business models already are emerging around data-driven innovation, and there will be new opportunities and new tensions around the monetization of data—particularly with respect to ownership, privacy, and security—as these new models take shape. This increases the importance of the intersection of science, technology, and public policy.

The challenge for businesses, governments, and educational institutions is how best to prepare and align ourselves to harness the full capacity of this data-driven, web-enabled, supercomputer-powered, globally interconnected world.

This is a new day, and it requires a new way.

I envision a new Polytechnic, in which universities, businesses, and governments collaborate more effectively to link the capabilities of advanced information technologies, communications, and networking—to the life sciences, and the physical, material, environmental, social, cognitive, and computational sciences.

Leaders must acquire new skills for this digitally interconnected environment. To bring people together, in this new context, they must be able to “translate” between and among disciplines and sectors. And, they must accomplish all of this in a virtual environment.

An ethical framework is essential. In the face of unintended consequences and uneven impacts, leaders must be acutely sensitive to the implications of decisions. Leadership through social cognitive networks brings a greater need to balance security and profit with concerns of privacy and reputation. A fundamental question, always, will be not merely, “Can it be done?” but, “Should it be done?”

The ability to aggregate, integrate, validate, structure, and fully use the burgeoning mass of information available will define success in this data-driven future.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we are transforming ourselves to develop and apply these new tools and technologies. 

Earlier this month we launched The Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications—or The Rensselaer IDEA. We are investing more than $100 million in this new institute-wide center, which will be led by world renowned Semantic Web expert, Professor James Hendler.

The Rensselaer IDEA will bring together talents and strengths in web science, high-performance computing, cognitive computing, data science and predictive analytics, and immersive technologies—and link them to applications at the interface of engineering and the physical, life, and social sciences. In addition…

  • We are upgrading our supercomputer, already one of the most powerful university-based supercomputers in the world.
  • IBM’s Watson computer has enrolled at Rensselaer to expand its cognitive computing skills.
  • Working with the White House Data.gov initiative, our faculty and students are creating platforms to mash-up massive data sets to generate usable information.
  • Rensselaer Professor Francine Berman is leading the U.S. in a global effort— the Research Data Alliance— to enable scientists to access, combine, and preserve research data.
  • We have partnered with Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine to push the boundaries of data-driven health research.
  • And just this week, we announced the Jefferson Project, a collaborative, sensor-enabled effort to make Upstate New York’s fabled Lake George the smartest lake in the world, and a global model for environmental research and protection of water resources.

The goal of The Rensselaer IDEA is to access and aggregate a global storehouse of social, cultural, financial, scientific and engineering information—and then to make it available in a form in which any person, anywhere on earth, can ask important questions and contribute to emergent hypotheses. 

But the right answer is a function of societal values. The answer sits at the nexus of science, technology, and public policy. 

We are educating our students— the next generation of discoverers, innovators and entrepreneurs—to make a difference in this context.

This is our big IDEA.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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