More Evidence That Big Data Draws Big Dollars. This Time From Duke University

The potential for huge amounts of data to accelerate advances across fields has funders giddy. Part of the draw is the diverse array of possible applications, and Duke University's collaborative data science center is a prime example.

Universities and researchers across the country are plunging into the depths of so-called big data—the massive, varied, and rapidly changing amount of collected information society generates these days. 


Huge streams of funding have gone to scholars using data science in their own fields, or creating tools to benefit multiple fields. But universities are also cobbling together entire departments to explore the subject. Duke is the latest of these schools, having just landed $9.75 million for its Information Initiative at Duke (iiD). The sum comes from an anonymous donor, plus matching funds from big Duke backers Anne and Robert Bass.  

The center exemplifies one of the magic words when it comes to data science funding—multidisciplinary. And what an exciting word it is! But really, look at all the crazy stuff the center is working on:

  • One project is attempting to use image analysis software to spot behavior that could indicate autism or other disorders in children, early on.
  • Scientists at iiD have been working with art historians and museum conservators to improve restoration methods of older paintings and to provide new insight into artists' methods.
  • A professor and an undergrad ran hundreds of computer simulations on North Carolina’s voting districts, and reported evidence that Republicans purposefully gerrymandered 2012 elections in the state. Their work prompted lawmakers to pursue redistricting legislation.
  • In collaboration with the Duke Energy Initiative, an iiD program is looking for ways to improve energy efficiency by modernizing the U.S. electric grid.

The list goes on—people working under the umbrella of iiD are looking at baseball scores, Durham housing trends, more personalized health care, neuroscience, and public policy. It's kind of all over the place, and that’s by design. 

For one thing, collaboration is something Duke likes to boast about, in general. But it’s also a result of a program called Bass Connections, launched with a $50 million gift from the same donors who are matching the latest iiD donation. Although Robert Bass attended Yale and Stanford, he and wife Anne have been big supporters of Duke’s cross-disciplinary work. 

As such, Bass Connections specifically has a goal of squishing together different disciplines at the university, and the iiD was established in 2013 as a cornerstone of the program. Duke's not alone, however, as donors in Virginia, New York, Washington State, and other locations have recently supported university centers with similar missions. 

If all this data talk makes you nervous, it's understandable. But while findings like those listed above are clearly the sexier subjects, it’s not all a wide-eyed bonanza of data mining. Part of the iiD’s mission is also understanding the risks associated with mass availability of personal data. Good to know. Stay out of my Facebook, Duke!