White House Aims to Tap Power of Government Data

Josh Smith

The White House announced a plan on Thursday to pour millions of dollars into harnessing the huge amounts of data, from genetic databases to earthquake tracking, collected by government agencies.

The "Big Data Research and Development Initiative” will provide more than $200 million "to greatly improve the tools and techniques needed to access, organize, and glean discoveries from huge volumes of digital data," the Office of Science and Technology Policy said in a statement.

The effort will span half a dozen agencies, from the Defense and Energy departments to the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

“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,” office Director John Holdren said in the statement.

Officials hope the additional funding will help develop new technologies to collect, store, manage, analyze, and share massive amounts of data; and expand the number of people working on data projects. Such data can then be put to use solving problems in science, engineering, national security, and education, among other areas.

Too often, the government is gathering unmanageable amounts of information, said Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, which is proposing programs to help understand climate change, earthquakes, and other environmental issues.

“We’re in danger of drowning in data while starving for understanding,” she said at an event on Thursday.

Collecting information is useless without ways to analyze and understand, Holdren said at the event.

Data, he said, gives government the “ability to move from data to knowledge to action.”

Specific projects include an NIH partnership with Amazon to use cloud services to give the public access to the international 1000 Genomes Project, which is the world's largest set of data on human genetic variation.

The Department of Defense and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, meanwhile, plan to spend millions of dollars to develop ways to sift through intelligence; and create systems that can make decisions on their own.

Brenda Dietrich, chief technology officer for IBM’s Business Analytics program, said the proposals are a “big step forward” for efforts to harness and understand the information being collected every day.

“Now we have a huge opportunity to shift data analysis from being a craft being done by individuals to a large collective intelligence—where people share data, tools and a common computing infrastructure,” she said in a blog post. “This will make more knowledge available to more people, and to society, more quickly.”