Several years ago I was involved in an NSF grant proposal that focused on academic collaboration between geographically disparate scientific data sets. A handful of universities in the United States were part of the proposal. I participated on behalf of EMC and in concert with several other vendors.
The term “Big Data” was not yet in vogue.
In September of this year I visited several universities in Europe (University College Cork and ETH Zurich) that are collaborating on a similar (but much more sweeping) proposal. The proposal is known as “FuturICT” and is one of six FET Flagship finalists. The Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) flagships are described as follows :
Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) is the EU pathfinder programme in information technologies. Now the European Commission raises its ambition to coordinate a Europe-wide research effort towards visionary technological targets. The endeavour takes shape in the FET Flagship Initiatives.
FET Flagships are large-scale, science-driven and mission oriented initiatives that aim to achieve a visionary technological goal. The scale of ambition is over 10 years of coordinated effort, and a budget of up to one billion Euro for each Flagship. They initiatives are coordinated between national and EU programmes and present global dimensions to foster European leadership and excellence in frontier research.
On October 24th of this year (2012) all six finalists submitted their final papers. As a strong supporter of FuturICT, EMC received a copy of the final proposal. While it is hard to fully summarize such an ambitious proposal as part of a blog post, FuturICT has three high-level thrusts:
Planetary Nervous System
Build an infrastructure to collect social data streams, sensor outputs, public government reports, etc. All of these signals will be gathered, aggregated, mined, and cleaned.
Living Earth Simulator
Build an infrastructure for large scale, data-driven simulation and experiments. The infrastructure will rely on common data models , shared visualizations, and HPC. Key pieces of this infrastructure will include structured and unstructured databases in a cloud-based environment.
Global Participatory Platform
Build a social networking and crowdsourcing API to help people integrate with the system.
Together, these three parts make up a whole known as a “Living Earth Platform”.
If the proposal is approved and the grant money received, the FuturICT team will tackle the familiar “balancing act” problem that appears whenever vast amounts of public data are gathered together: how can data about individuals be usefully mined while privacy is protected? Security researchers Dirk Helbing at ETH Zurich puts it this way:
Helbing points out the particular challenge is to develop new technical methods of data encryption, storage and processing that allow the kind of data mining that benefits individuals and society, but which also protects individual privacy and confidential commercial data. Nevertheless, it must remain possible to inspect data in a limited, democratically controlled way where this is necessary to combat corruption and terrorism. Until now there has been a lack of technical solutions that can satisfy all three requirements.
Furthermore, Helbing stresses “the main priority is to find ways of giving back control of personal data to the user”. The World Economic Forum is now making the same recommendation. He also emphasises that the research within the FuturICT project will have a strong emphasis on ethical questions and a clear code of values. He says, “FuturICT will give top priority to protecting sensitive data and will be fully transparent and democratically controlled. Among all the activities working with large volumes of data, this is the most transparent project. Without such a project it will hardly be possible to learn about the dangers of large data sets and to take effective action to protect society from these dangers”.
Finally, it is important to point out that FuturICT does not want to be a tool that is restricted to a number of privileged political or economic decision makers. Just like the Internet empowers individuals and small organizations with a global reach and unlimited access to information, the project intends to create a participatory platform allowing everyone to access and utilize the data and models developed by the project for their own purposes and applications.
FET is a prime example of a regional innovation initiative that local EMC Europeans can monitor and contribute to. As a vendor that provides cloud, big data, and security products, it is easy to see why EMC is highly interested in the proposal. From a research perspective, staying close to this initiative could give our researchers a front-row seat to a fascinating European discussion.
I’m rooting for FuturICT to win the grant, if for no other reason than to keep tabs on the progress and share the results in the years ahead.