Calling Big Data “big” is the understatement of the century. The amount of information, or data, being generated by all individuals and the society overall isn’t just big, it’s enormous and completely unprecedented.
Think about it: every time you visit a website; every time you make an online purchase or bank transaction; every minute your smartphone is on, you leave a data record of your activity that is stored somewhere in the cloud. It’s not just personal data either. Think about all the information being sent from the international space station to earth-based servers, or all Google searches around the globe going through the search engines to central sites.
That’s Big Data and a Galway research centre is central to Ireland’s efforts to harness its potential.
By understanding Big Data we can gain novel and surprising insights into people and their habits, as well associety in general. We can use that knowledge to make society and business work better, from efficient transport services to a health system that responds to needs when or before they arise. There are also extraordinary business opportunities in Big Data, from businesses learning from their data about their services and customers, to companies tapping into streams of untouched data and creating business based on those streams.
But getting value from Big Data requires sophistication and experience in data science. This is where Ireland’s Insight Centre for Data Analytics comes in. A data science research centre, the largest amongst the Science Foundation Ireland research centres and one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, Insight has 400 researchers based all around the country, in DCU, NUI Galway, UCC, and UCD.
The site at NUI Galway is led by Professor Dietrich Rebholz-Schuhmann, a German native who moved to Galway last year. Rebholz is a qualified medical doctor and a computer scientist. In his current position as a professor of computer science, he uses data to maximise the outcomes of biomedical research. Medical research has become interdisciplinary and data science is helping us to link the research to treatments and to find novel ways to understand diseases. Rebolz is renowned for this sort of research – a search engine (‘Whatizit’) he created during his time at the European Bioinformatics Institute is known as the “Google for biomedical text”.
He has a very defined vision for Insight in Galway. “Interdisciplinary, collaborative work in research is absolutely essential,” he says. “Data science maximises the benefits across research areas. Since I’ve started in Insight, I’ve worked together with researchers in engineering, internet of things and humanities, in biomedical, journalism and e-government research to help them to use data to improve their decision making.
“Insight was established as a centre of excellence in data research. That can only be realised if we’re contributing and profiting from different scientific and commercial fields.”
Insight also works closely with businesses of all sizes and scales from local SMEs, to multinational corporations. “A lot of SMEs in particular have challenging periods of development in their early stages, when they want to use research to drive their innovation into long term competitive advantages,” Rebholz says.
“At a stage when long term financial commitments – research for example – are not necessarily advisable for a new company, Insight can help to resolve this and to realise these ambitions. Companies profit from Insight’s close support from the University and Science Foundation Ireland.”
One interesting collaboration in recent months in the West of Ireland is with Net Feasa, a Kerry based company that offers a next generation tourism experience through Wi-Fi hotspots along the Wild Atlantic Way.
“It’s a great example of a company that developed innovative approaches in the tourism sector and is ambitious about additional markets nationally and internationally. In its collaboration with the University and Insight, we help to realise the next generation data driven approach to tourism, by combining public data about tourist attractions with the ‘Internet of Things’ to provide local weather, road and other data.” Rebholz says.
Rebholz is becoming accustomed to life on the west coast of Ireland. “I like Galway,” he says. “I was very surprised at how lively the city is. The social life is great and the city itself is outstandingly vibrant with events like the Galway Arts Festival and others around the year, including German Christmas markets at the end of the year. I am certain that the proximity the university to the city centre significantly adds to this atmosphere, on top of being engaged in cutting edge research across Insight and the university. It’s a good place to be.”