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“Powering Data-Driven Innovation: Predictions for 2013”

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

The Economist Magazine’s “World in 2013 Festival”
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
New York, NY

Saturday, December 8, 2012


There is a significant transformation underway globally in the way we make decisions, make products, make connections, and ultimately make progress...  Or not...

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

Let me begin with a vignette that may be a harbinger of things to come...

As “Superstorm Sandy” was beginning to gather steam in the Caribbean, five days before it slammed into New Jersey and New York, US 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 left 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 was the inputs, and the capacity of the computers doing the modeling.

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

“Big Data”-driven innovation will be a driver for changes in science and society during the next 50 years in much the same way as quantum science was to technological and economic development in the 20th century.

Moreover, 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. Together, these comprise what the director of Rensselaer’s high performance computing center—Dr. Christopher Carothers—describes as, in fact, a “human sustainability network,” all driven by the interplay of data, physical systems, high performance computing, and analytics.

I predict that Big data and network science are going merge, marrying the internet of data with the internet of things in new ways, and this will be world changing.

Just as in the 1800’s there was a shift from electricity as a curiosity to a commodity, made possible by the emergence of electrical engineering, so too are we now  in the midst of a shift  in data as a commodity, and importantly, data as a resource, in ways not previously imagined.

Data is growing at a volume much greater than the tools available to process it, but new tools are being engineered that enable us to take massive amounts of structured and unstructured data and to create useful information.

During the past 3 years the number of U.S. government data sets available on data-sharing sites has gone from 57 to more than 400,000, and there are more than 1 million from governments around the world. That number is expected to exceed 10-million by 2015. At Rensselaer, Dr. Jim Hendler and his team—collaborating with the White House Data.gov staff—have developed smart interfaces that allow government data from a huge variety of sources to be combined in unexpected, and often very beneficial, ways. The infrastructure and technologies they have created have made it possible for others to “mash-up” data sets and to develop more than 1200 applications that are driving health policy, transportation policy, and much more.

If we take full advantage of these emerging technologies, new opportunities will be created by the ability—with smart analytics—to anticipate and predict events, thereby 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... particularly on the trending of things.

Risky—in that the interconnectivity can lead to sometimes abhorrent, and certainly unintended consequences, like “flash crashes”.

As we saw all too clearly in such devastating ways with energy, communication, and transportation systems in the aftermath of “Superstorm Sandy,” interconnectivity presents enormous intersecting opportunities and intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences.

So, I predict that the level of interdependence of these interconnected networks will grow rapidly in the next year and beyond, and will 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 to stay ahead of the curve.

But what is the value of this new digital information enabled by new platforms and technologies? 

Again, Rensselaer’s Dr. Francine Berman is providing U.S. leadership for an emerging international initiative – the Research Data Alliance—to accelerate data-driven innovation worldwide ...and she concurs that; “Valuable digital information is the new natural resource of the 21st Century.

So I predict that, because of the ability to gain new information and insights from data, and implicitly the ability to marry data with things, new economic models will emerge around data driven information, both data at rest and data in motion, and there will be new and growing tensions and conflicts around the monetization of data—particularly with respect to ownership, privacy, and security—as these economic models take shape.

It also is possible that the pace and scale of data generation and increasing interconnectivity are moving  so fast that the normal processes for answering these economic modeling questions will not have time to work.

How will it shake out?... Only time will tell...


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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