"NRP 75 has played an important role in maintaining Swiss science at the international forefront"

Christian S. Jensen, President of the Steering Committee, about the current status of NRP 75, about the synthesis and about Big Data in general.

​What is the current overall status of NRP 75?

The process of designing NRP 75 started in September 2014, some six years ago. We anticipated an increasing digitalisation of important societal and industrial processes that would continue to generate increasingly massive volumes of data. On the one hand, this data, if harnessed properly, would enable better and more cost-effective processes. Phrases such as “data is the new oil” or “data is the new soil” suggest that data is a new resource from which it is possible to create substantial value. On the other hand, actually harnessing and appropriately exploiting the increasing volumes of data offer new challenges. NRP 75 was created to enable research that would address such challenges.

We envisioned a programme that encompassed three modules.One was to address core challenges in enabling the exploitation of big data. This computing-focused module aimed to enable scientists to dig deep to perform research to provide better foundations for exploiting big data.

The second module recognised the societal aspects of big data and thus targeted research on societal and regulatory challenges. For example, such challenges relate to ethics, to how increased personalisation capabilities challenge the solidarity inherent to insurance, to how the use of big data should be regulated, and to how new legal challenges brought about by big data can be addressed.

The last module was designed to bring together computing experts with domain scientists in order to create solutions to big data challenges in the contexts of specific applications.

In June 2015, the Federal Council mandated the Swiss National Science Foundation to carry out NRP 75. This then led to a call for research project proposals. The goal was to fund the very best projects within the modules, as proposed by members of the Swiss scientific community. Following a competitive and very selective evaluation process, a portfolio of 12, 8, and 14 projects were funded in the three modules. While these projects by no means covered all challenges brought on by big data, they were assessed by an international panel to have excellent prospects for making significant contributions to selected aspects within the scope of NRP 75.

The projects started in 2017, and all will end during 2020 or 2021

What about your expectations towards the projects?

The projects are still ongoing – only one project has ended. I see substantial dedication and effort across the projects. The rapidly expanding scope of big data challenges is such that the combined results of the projects will not “solve” big data once and for all. It is often the case that each time one problem is solved, many new problems have emerged in the process.

I do expect that each project will make important advances in its area, as anticipated in the proposal that got it funded. I also recognise that not all projects will achieve their original goals. This is the nature of ambitious research: in some cases, the goals may prove to be too hard; in some cases, the scientists may redefine their goals as they gain more insight; and in some cases, the scientists may be successful in achieving even harder goals than they originally anticipated. I am looking forward to reading all the final reports.

Highlights of the programme so far?

Here, I want to focus on the project “ICU cockpit: computer assistance for intensive and emergency medicine” because this project has finished.
This is an example of a project in the third track. The project concerns patient safety in intensive care units. The project is led by Professor Emanuela Keller from University Hospital Zurich and involves computing experts from ETH Zurich and IBM. Rather than explaining the advances made in the project, I give the word to Prof. Keller (see links). This project is an excellent example of how big data can be put into action in a specific application by bringing together domain and computing experts. The project also demonstrates how the research continues even after a project has ended, here by proceeding to clinical studies and actual practical use.

You started with the synthesis process. What can we expect from the synthesis?

We recently designed the format of the synthesis report on the activities of the NRP as well as the process for completing the report. In June, the designs were approved by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The process will start slowly this coming winter and will be completed two years from now. We will involve a science writer to make the report readable. In particular, we aim for a report that targets a general and interested readership. We will explain the importance of the issues addressed by the projects in the NRP and how they were addressed. This way, the report will base its coverage on issues or challenges addressed in projects in the three tracks. We hope to cover case studies that relate to everyday activities of modern life and that may serve as eye openers. We plan to highlight general lessons learned, advice, and insight from the projects.

Big data is a very vague term. Can you explain to us what Big Data means to you? How has "Big Data" changed since the launch of the programme?

Indeed, “big data” is a vague term that has been given different meanings depending on the context.

The Wikipedia entry for big data starts “Big data is a field that treats ways to analyse, systematically extract information from, or otherwise deal with data sets that are too large or complex to be dealt with by traditional data-processing application software.” I believe that this is a good approximation to what big data means in a research setting. Indeed, according to some reports, our ability to store data has doubled every 40 months since the 1980s, and by 2025, an IDC report predicts that the global data volume will exceed 160 zettabytes.

Next, while the quote simply mentions the size and complexity of the data as sources of the new challenges, aspects that are frequently mentioned include the volume, variety (diversity), velocity (speed of creation), and veracity (truthfulness or trustworthiness) of the data. However, I have seen one report mention no less than 42 v’s! Next, the Wikipedia quote does not cover societal aspects of big data – how one “deals” with data in a societally appropriate manner. This important aspect was considered to be so important that it was assigned a separate track in NRP 75. Further, I find that it is being recognised increasingly that big data offers different challenges in different application domains. After all, when the end goal is responsible value creation, applications are important because that is where the value creation actually occurs.

Putting all this together, the scope of big data research has grown over the last five years, and it will continue to grow.

Where do you expect the biggest impact of Big Data? From the perspective of a researcher? You personally?

These are big questions. I am a strong believer in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that was adopted by the United Nations in 2015. This agenda encompasses 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). I expect that big data research can make contributions that will further many or all of these goals. In my view, climate change may be one of the most pressing challenges. Big data can help us understand and reduce climate change, and big data can help us contend with the effects of climate change. This is but one vague example. The opportunities for value creation from data in the SDG setting abound.

From my own perspective, I am increasingly happy that NRP 75 was designed to include a societal module. Information technology has an increasing societal impact. This is great for a scientist like me because it means that what we do matters, but it also will (and should!) increasingly raise societal issues on how to ensure that technology is used appropriately.

How do you assess Switzerland’s position in terms of Big Data research and applications? NRP 75’s position?

NRP 75 has utilised the Swiss National Research Programme instrument to put focus on addressing key big data challenges in a holistic manner. NRP 75 has successfully assembled a portfolio of projects run by excellent and committed scientists that all are making advances to the state of the art. In addition to the specific results achieved in the projects, NRP 75 has shaped the research landscape so that scientist will continue to address big data challenges beyond the completion of NRP 75. Further, outreach activities in NRP 75 have brought broader attention to the impact of big data on society. For example, teaching material on big data has been made available to schools. Overall, NRP 75 has played an important role in maintaining Swiss science at the international forefront and has taken important steps towards enabling the appropriate exploitation of big data to the benefit of Switzerland.

Christian S. Jensen

Christian S. Jensen is professor in the Department of Computer Science at Aalborg University, Denmark. His research focuses on data management and analytics in relation to spatio-temporal data. He previously worked at the universities of Aarhus, Arizona and Maryland as well as at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA. He presides over the Steering Committee of NRP 75 “Big Data”.