Higher education

Big data is 'big-time growing' at University of Iowa

New informatics center will work across university departments

Nick Street

UI professor
Nick Street UI professor

IOWA CITY — Every time you swipe a credit card, someone somewhere records that. Every time you click on a website, it’s tabulated. Biomedical scientists today are capable of tracking intricate genetic behavior.

“Everyone has data,” said University of Iowa professor Nick Street. “That’s the reason ‘big data’ is such a buzzword.”

And everyone wants to use it — to improve marketing strategies, hiring practices, health care and basic decision-making in a wide swath of industries, said Street, executive officer of the UI Henry B. Tippie College of Business management sciences department.

“It’s really quite exciting,” he said. “I’ve been here 17 to 18 years, and this is the best time to be an applied computing person since I’ve been here.”

Street is referencing, in part, a new “Informatics at Iowa” initiative aimed at strengthening the research and training of informatics at centers and institutes across campus — including those in medicine, business, geography and the social sciences.

The UI3 initiative, as it’s called, will support and coordinate collaboration among those centers by adding faculty with informatics expertise and by creating a physical space for the resources.

That space will be the fifth floor of the new Public Health building. The Board of Regents on Wednesday approved spending $4.6 million to create the UI3 center, scheduled for completion in March.

“Now there will be a front door to walk into,” Street said.

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“We are breaking down the normal academic structure, where everyone stays in their own pocket, and trying to work across those boundaries,” he added.

To date, the UI has hired six new informatics faculty, with at least 10 more hirings planned, in the effort to establish the university as a national center of excellence in informatics. The new hires have expertise in electrical, computer and mechanical engineering, applied mathematics and computer science, with applications in a variety of industries, including health, environment and energy.

“It’s about having more folks on campus, having their expertise available as a resource, and centralizing and leveraging all the expertise we already have,” Street said. “Those people don’t necessarily talk to or even know about each other right now. We want them to have a part-time home in the initiative so that we can become more than the sum of our parts.”

The College of Business rolled out an undergrad program in business analytics two years ago, which already has 100-some students and is “wildly popular,” Street said.

It introduced a graduate certificate in business analytics last fall, and it’s adding a master’s degree this fall. The graduate programs are being offered at the college’s Cedar Rapids and Des Moines locations.

“It’s big-time growing,” Street said.

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