The era of big data brings with it a sea of opportunities for development and innovation.
Guest contributor Daniela Quaglia
Big data is here to stay. As scientists, we stand to benefit by being part of this exciting revolution. At the second Publishing Better Science through Better Data conference, held in London on October 23rd, Dr. Ewan Birney, joint associate director of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), and Dr. Timo Hannay, founder of SchoolDash (a website that provides statistics about schools in England), walked us through some of the opportunities that arise from working with big data.
Opportunities in biology
Birney spoke about how the increase in big data is influencing the way we do biology. He promised to give the audience “an EBI centric view of the world”. I’m glad he did, because every scientist wanting to use big data should understand how EBI can help them.
EBI takes data provided by laboratories and stores, verifies, classifies and shares it. This approach means that a wealth of molecular-biology data, from DNA sequences to full systems (such us biomolecular pathways and metabolomics data), can be found in one place. As most scientists do not want to have to work from shared data in their raw form, the institute also works with the scientific community to convert original data into useful formats. Data from the Human Genome Project provides a compelling example of how such transformations can benefit the community — as Birney pointed out, not even the most experienced researchers want to analyse such complex raw data.
Third, handling medical data. Scientists are becoming ever-more interested in using healthcare data for research purposes. But these data need special consideration owing to the need for privacy, and archiving must take this into account. And the final challenge is to develop a system that allows participation and collaboration among scientists the world over. Research from different regions covers deeply diverse topics, and thoughtful engagement with each nation is needed to harness these valuable expertise.
By meeting these challenges head on, the EBI is ensuring that scientists can continue to benefit from the opportunities that big data brings.
Opportunities for Innovation
Hannay set out to persuade the audience that “every one of us should be an innovator at every level of our activity.” In doing so, he convinced me that big data should inspire innovation.
Consider how the rise of the printing press or the Internet drove innovation. As Hannay reminded us, “new technologies create profound changes in our lives.” It is an exciting time to be a scientist, with developments in digital distribution, big-data publication, industrial-scale science and e-science creating a fertile ground for change. Innovation is knocking at our doors: from research, technology and commercial points of view.
Hannay believes that scientists should ask of their research, “Am I doing it right?” Informatics tools are now available to everyone — be brave and use them. Don’t shy away from reusing other people’s research and data, but instead embrace this unprecedented opportunity to look at datasets from a fresh perspective.
As innovations in research come from sharing existing data, technological innovation will come from fine-tuning existing solutions to solve our scientific problems. Computer programmers have been tackling data storage and analysis for many years. When it comes to big-data challenges, the solution is probably already out there.
Finally, big data provides opportunities for software start-up companies — the perfect platform for commercial innovation.
This data-intensive era has provided scientists with myriad opportunities. The future is now in our hands. Rather than watching from the sidelines, we should get involved.
Hannay told the young researchers in the audience, “you should not underestimate your influence.” Everyone, from PhD students to professors, should engage with big data. No matter the level of expertise, everyone can contribute to generating innovative technologies that help to tame big data, and to generating datasets of use to the entire scientific community. After all, as Hannay reminded us, “innovation goes together with idealism.”