Duke gets big boost for big data

$9.75M will support data-driven initiatives in healthcare, medicine, other fields
By Bernie Monegain
10:15 AM
Duke University

With $9.75 million in hand from gifts and matching funds, Duke University is launching an initiative focused on harnessing vast amounts of data to tackle society’s biggest challenges. Healthcare is chief among them.

Launched in 2013, the Information Initiative at Duke, known as iiD, brings together diverse faculty and graduate and undergraduate students to make sense of big data – information characterized by tremendous volume, variety and rapid change, said Duke University President Richard H. Broadhead, in announcing the plans on April 27.

The goal is to address a wide range of issues – from the identification of counterfeit art to the early detection of disease.

The iiD is the cornerstone of the Information, Society and Culture theme of Bass Connections, another Duke initiative that encourages student and faculty collaboration across traditional academic boundaries on issues of global importance.

"The iiD has provided invaluable opportunities for our faculty and students to translate vast amounts of data into major breakthroughs," Brodhead said in a statement. "This infusion of funds will allow us to continue to advance our understanding of how to convert data into knowledge for human benefit, as well as train students in these critical skills."

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The gifts will endow iiD professorships, graduate fellowships in engineering and educational programs on data-driven problem solving, both in the classroom and in the field. It also will provide flexible funding for iiD to explore new teaching and research avenues.

"The availability of massive amounts of data within every disciplinary domain is transforming research and education," Robert Calderbank, iiD director and a professor in Duke's departments of electrical and computer engineering, computer science and mathematics, said in a news release. "With this generous support, Duke and iiD will continue to lead the way in developing truly innovative opportunities for our students and faculty to engage with big data and impact society in the classroom and beyond."

In the past two years, iiD teams of Duke faculty and students have analyzed and interpreted vast amounts of data captured by computers, cameras, sensors and smartphones. Projects so far have included collaborations with Duke Medicine to deploy personalized healthcare; with the Duke University Energy Initiative to understand energy usage and improve efficiency; and with Duke's Social Science Research Institute to inform better public policies.

Teams are also tackling the National Academy of Engineering's Grand Challenges for Engineering, such as reverse-engineering the brain to uncover its vast, unrealized potential and to improve detection and treatment of brain-related diseases.

In one Bass Connections project, iiD faculty and students are working together to facilitate screening for autism and childhood mental disorders. By designing algorithms to automatically detect abnormal movements or behaviors captured on video, the team hopes to provide valuable tools to help clinicians detect symptoms and intervene earlier.

"If we can find patterns in the data that point to just a few simple tests or questions that truly indicate a problem, that would be a tremendous tool for clinicians," said Guillermo Sapiro, a professor in engineering and computer science who co-leads the project with Duke child psychiatrist Helen Egger. "It's an exciting project because the contribution to society could be huge."

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The $9.75 million includes two gifts totaling $6.67 million from an anonymous donor that is matched by challenge funds from philanthropists Anne T. and Robert M. Bass. Duke launched Bass Connections in 2013 with a $50 million gift from the Basses, including $25 million in challenge money.