Q&A with Dr. Suzanne Iacono of NSF: Developing the Road Map for Big Data

Dr. Suzanne Iacono, National Science Foundation

Dr. Suzanne Iacono is at the forefront of Big Data research at the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. She believes that all the national priorities the United States is facing would benefit from Big Data research and helps lead a team developing a Big Data plan for the federal government.

WashingtonExec: Could you tell us a little about your background and your role at the National Science Foundation?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: I am the Senior Science Advisor for the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation. NSF is the basic science and engineering research and development agency in the US government. We actually fund all areas of science and engineering. We fund basic science — the very early, basic science and engineering — that will lead to breakthroughs, new products and innovations 10, 20 and 30 years down the road.

WashingtonExec: Can you explain your big data program?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: The White House launched the National Big Data Research and Development initiative on March 29.  At the same time, NSF issued a joint Big Data solicitation with the National Institutes of Health. I co-chair the Big Data Senior Steering Group (BDSSG); this is an inter-agency committee with representatives from about a dozen of the R&D agencies across the government. Over a year of work has gone into developing the major concepts, i.e., the strategy and the road map for how we are going to move forward. We now have a really great plan for what the US government is going to do in the area of big data.

WashingtonExec: In what sectors do you see big data having the largest impact?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: We believe that this is a critical juncture for the US government to invest in big data research and development.  All the national priorities will benefit from advances in big data. Health and well-being is one of them…. There are so many data that are collected around a person’s health: electronic health records, personal health records, people now have their DNAs mapped, etc. There’s all of the new science and discoveries that are happening at the same time. Often, medical practitioners don’t have the data at hand precisely about that patient’s history, so that they are able to integrate that with the discoveries about different kinds of diseases. Integrating these various data, for example at the bedside of the patient, could actually make a huge difference in the recommendations that a doctor gives.  If we could get these data into the hands of our medical practitioners we believe that there could be great advantages.

There are many more national priorities, such as environment and sustainability, emergency response, advanced manufacturing, [and]cyber security… education and workforce development is something else that we are really grappling with as a nation. Let me tell you about emergency preparedness. Imagine some kind of nuclear disaster. Scientists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are actually working on ways to handle such a crisis.  They’ve developed models of how the plumes start up, how they expand, what kinds of weather conditions push them one way or another. If there was a real nuclear explosion you would want to integrate these properties with real weather data, you would want to integrate it with census data – where are the people on the ground, where are the first responders – in order to come up with a plan that would enable the region to evacuate their citizens safely.  This would be done in real time, something that can’t be done today because we do not have the ability to integrate those kinds of data archives in the time frame that is needed.

WashingtonExec: What was the reason the NSF started analyzing data in an unstructured way?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology did a report that was presented to the president in December 2010. They strongly recommended that the US government take some action in the area of big data. That played a huge role in getting us started. Shortly after that, this Big Data Senior Steering Group that I co-chair was charged with coming up with the strategies and plans for what the US government should do.

There are four areas that I believe are producing what we call big data, and the first area is big science.  NSF and other agencies have invested over the years in telescopes that are placed strategically across the globe. Greenland, South America, Hawaii – places where the sky is very clear – and there are many other kinds of instruments like the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland and France that produce big data. These instruments collect terabytes of data daily. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey has been around since 2000. They had collected in the first few weeks more data than astronomy had ever collected in its entire history.

The second is sensors that are placed everywhere:  in buildings, in bridges, in cars, in the roads, etc.  We humans carry around digital devices that actually act as sensors, collecting data about our location, the temperature, and so forth.  We put sensors in bridges so that engineers can know in advance if there are strong winds, and the bridge is going to break.  We want to be able to stop traffic from moving onto a bridge early so that we can save lives.

The third part of the proliferation of big data is caused by mobile devices. Everyone is on a social network. Everyone is blogging. People are putting up YouTube videos at an incredible rate. Most of the data that are part of this big data scenario are unstructured. Something like only 5 percent of the data are structured in standard formats – in databases where we have tools that can easily access them, know how to search and pull out the meaning from those data. That’s part of the science, the frontiers that we have to engage the US researchers in focusing on so that they can make advances.

The fourth part of big data is what scientists call the long tail of science.  Not every scientist is a big data scientist. They are just working in their labs by themselves or in small teams, but they are doing experiments most of the time.  They are collecting data, they are generating data and they keep it in some unique format that only that team knows about. This is an enormous, largely untapped scientific resource.  If we could extract the knowledge that we need from all of those databases that are sitting everywhere, we really could make some headway with some of these national priorities and grand challenges.

WashingtonExec: How large or significant is the gap between the amount of data available and the amount of people able to analyze it (i.e., trained workforce)?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: The education and workforce development implications of the big data phenomenon are huge. The McKinsey report on Big Data published in 2011 projects a shortfall of almost 200,000 data analysts by 2018 as well as 1.5 million managers who need to understand the importance of big data for their organization’s competitiveness and survival. One of the main issues is that we need to train young people and help them develop an interdisciplinary background. They need to know statistics; they need to know machine learning and other data analytic techniques; they need to be agile with algorithms and software development. And they should have some understanding of the domain and its forward-looking business models so as to understand the frontiers and be able to come up with some new innovation that will make their organization more productive, more effective, more profitable, etc. The stakes are high. But we as a country are lagging behind with this kind of interdisciplinary education.  The Big Data Senior Steering Group takes this challenge very seriously and is putting resources into identifying gaps in federal programs and developing interagency solutions.  This requires a long-term, sustained effort if we are to make a difference in the future.

WashingtonExec: What do you predict will happen with this new technology in five or ten years?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: There are still so many things that we do not understand about how humans work collectively through social networks. I believe in five years we will have barely scratched the surface. It is not just technology development. There are social issues, policy issues, and legal issues that have to be worked out, too. Ten years from now, I’ll bet you that we will start to see pretty good tools starting to be used by the public to help address some of these national priorities, like in health and emergency response. But once the tools are out there, we play with them, we use them and then we go back to the developer with ideas about new capabilities and functionalities that we want. Once the artifacts in are in the hands of the public, then there’s again more years of iterative development before they are really graceful tools that people can use in the environments that they need to use them.

WashingtonExec: Have you learned more from success, or from your failures?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: I’ve learned from the failures: when you fall flat on your face, you have to just pick yourself up and keep right on going. I think that makes a person stronger.  I think it makes a person more human.  You understand that we are all human, and it’s what we can do together that really makes a difference.

WashingtonExec: Do you have a favorite application on your iPhone or iPad?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: My favorite app doesn’t exist yet. The app that I want is an app that will keep my grandchildren engaged when we are doing Skype.  The grandchildren are eight and six [years old], and squirmy – they like to say hi to me and then they are running off to play.  I want to engage them for more than two or three minutes. I would like an app that is engaging and participatory and fun, so that they would walk away saying, “Wow, I just had the best hour with my grandmother. It was so much fun.”  That’s the app I want.

WashingtonExec: What is something most people might not know about you?

Dr. Suzanne Iacono: I was actually stranded on a deserted island off of the country of Belize.  I was stupid and young, and gave a boatman money to deliver me and my brother and some friends to this deserted island with our tent and food for a week.  I paid him to take us, and then to come back and get us. Talk about failures – he never came back.  This is an island called South Water Key. It was not that there were no resources on the island because there were, which was lucky because we ran out of food after a week.  There were coconut trees.  There were big water towers that collected rainwater, so we actually had water to drink, and of course there was abundant fish.  That was the whole purpose of being there; to snorkel, catch fish and see all of the beautiful fish that were in the ocean.

My brother, after about a week and a half, stood out at the end of the pier waving this huge blanket, so finally 10 or 14 days into this a boat started to come in.  We all ran down to the pier screaming saying, “Save us! Save us!” just like in the movies.  The guy came and took us back to Belize City.

It’s funny how you start to get into it though.  We had a radio. Every night we would listen to this soap opera. This soap opera would go on hour after hour, and I got hooked. I was kind of sad I wasn’t going to know how it ended.


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