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Calderbank to Direct Interdisciplinary 'Big Data' Effort at Duke

New team setting up collaborative space in Gross Hall

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Robert Calderbank will head the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD)

Robert Calderbank, the Phillip Griffiths professor of computer science, mathematics and electrical and computer engineering at Duke University, has been appointed director of an interdisciplinary program designed to increase "big data" computational research, Provost Peter Lange announced Friday. The new program is called the Information Initiative at Duke (iiD).

The term "big data" refers to collections of information characterized by three things: massive size, tremendous variety and rapid change. Big data overwhelms traditional software and is complicated to capture, curate, manage and process in reasonable periods of time.

Calderbank will report to Lange and Susan Roth, vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, and will step down as dean of the natural sciences division within Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, effective July 1. Rebecca Willett, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Pratt School of Engineering, will serve as associate director of iiD.  

The program's initial focus will be to provide seed funding for interdisciplinary research across Duke. Lange sees this effort as an extraordinary opportunity for Duke to amplify the impact of a signature interdisciplinary culture.

"Access to unprecedented amounts of information is creating new opportunities for Duke students and faculty, working together in multidisciplinary teams, to actively engage with and to change the world around them," said Lange.

Equally important, he sees an opportunity to raise the international profile of the computational sciences at Duke. "Big data is pushing the scientific frontier, leading not just to applications impact, but to new mathematics, statistics and computer science."

The need to manage and harness big data crosses into all areas of our society -- from business to medicine and research to personal entertainment. In the medical sciences, Duke faculty are studying brain scans, questionnaire data and associated genetic data as a package to see if there are patterns connecting brain anatomy and biochemistry to mental illness and the processing of thoughts and memories.

In the humanities, synthesis of digital texts, photos, historical accounts of battles or natural disasters and other disparate data sources can create a new understanding of history, the effects of policy decisions and much more.

The iiD developed out of a faculty-led assessment in the spring of 2012, looking at how Duke's research could evolve with a stronger enabling focus on big data as a foundation. The assessment was organized by Calderbank and Vice Provost Keith Whitfield and included more than 30 faculty from all three divisions of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences (humanities, social sciences and natural sciences), the Pratt School of Engineering, the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Fuqua School of Business, the School of Medicine, the Duke Library system as well as representatives from the library and department of statistics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Calderbank also currently serves as the co-leader of the Information, Society and Culture Theme within Bass Connections, and will encourage undergraduates to become involved in faculty-mentored research by joining graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in multidisciplinary research teams.

By August 2013, Calderbank and a team of faculty from computer science, electrical and computer engineering, mathematics and statistics will take up residence in Gross Hall to form a nucleus for the iiD and the information-related Bass Connections effort. Co-locating faculty from different disciplines is a vital and healthy part of stimulating collaborations, according to Calderbank. He also intends to regularly refresh the residents of the Gross Hall intellectual hub, to continually build and renew relationships.

The iiD team is already exploring collaboration with the Social Sciences Research Institute (SSRI), which is relocating to the second floor of Gross Hall. Director Tom Nechyba sees great opportunity in the proximity. 

"Social scientists are asking important questions involving increasingly complex data, and the Information Initiative has the experts who can tease information out of such data," Nechyba said. "With the growing avalanche of data flowing into the social sciences, this is the perfect time for us to collaborate in new and innovative ways, and being in the same building can help make this a reality. It's really exciting."

Calderbank and Willett have established an advisory board to assist in research proposal reviews and plan to issue a call for proposals in the coming weeks. The review board includes economist Nechyba, English professor and director of the Franklin Humanities Institute Ian Baucom, neurobiologist and director of the Duke Institute for Brain Science and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Michael Platt, and psychologist and Vice Provost Whitfield. 

Calderbank joined Duke in 2010 to become dean of natural sciences after directing the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics at Princeton University. Prior to joining Princeton in 2004, he was vice president for research at AT&T, responsible for what may have been the first industrial research lab where the primary focus was big data. His research papers have been cited more than 30,000 times and his inventions are found in billions of consumer devices. Calderbank was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2005 and has received a number of awards, most recently the 2013 IEEE Hamming Medal for his contributions to information transmission.