Cranfield University: DREAM team set to dig deep into data

Students at a new doctoral training centre will use big data to tackle challenges such as extreme weather and population growth

March 5, 2015

“One criticism often levied at the academic community is that, sometimes, the tools and techniques we develop for risk analysis can be highly sophisticated…but without enough consideration of whether they improve decision-making.”

That is the view of Simon Pollard, pro vice-chancellor in the School of Energy, Environmental Technology and Agrifood at Cranfield University, on the institution’s approach to its role leading a new Centre for Doctoral Training – a consortium of four UK universities that will give 30 PhD students the opportunity to undertake research into the use of big data analytics to assess risk.

“The whole purpose of analysing risk is so that you can make a well-founded decision on how to manage it. Are [the techniques developed in universities] sometimes overdesigned for what’s needed?” said Professor Pollard.

As part of the DREAM CDT (short for Data, Risk and Environmental Analytical Methods), which also includes Newcastle University and the universities of Birmingham and Cambridge, Cranfield is hoping to bridge the gap between real-world application and academic research.

“We are missing opportunities to better manage risk because we are not using our data sufficiently, or looking in a systemic way at our interconnected world,” Professor Pollard said.

“If there is one criticism [of universities]…it’s perhaps that we’ve not been good enough at getting risk experts out of the university and ready for the practical risk challenges that industrialists, government and other employers want. This is an opportunity to ensure that that is addressed.”

Through the CDT, which has received £2.5 million from the Natural Environment Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, students will be charged with designing effective risk management strategies across the environmental sciences. Their work will focus on using big datasets to address issues including the effects of extreme weather and the rapidly expanding population.

Greg Clark, the universities minister, hopes that the investment will help “to train the next generation of big data experts”, and “enable a skilled workforce to develop innovative tools to assess and mitigate risk that will help business, government and wider society cope effectively with big environmental and societal changes”.

To help ensure that the work of the CDT remains relevant to real-world concerns, two advisory boards will work with it. One, an industrial advisory board, will be led by technology company Esri, supplier of geographic information monitoring software, which will vet proposed study topics for industrial relevance. The second, an international advisory board, will be led by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, and will look at the potential international impact of the work.

Nerc hopes that the project will help to address what it describes as a “skills shortage” in the area of big data analysis. According to 2014 research by business analytics company SAS UK and the Tech Partnership, a network of employers aiming to accelerate the growth of the digital economy, Britain is expected to create an average of 56,000 big data jobs a year until 2020. Demand will push average salaries to £55,000 a year, some 31 per cent above the average for an IT worker.

In 2013, the UK government identified big data as one of its “eight great technologies” – topics that it believes should be a priority focus of research in UK universities.

“We are becoming increasingly in need of a sophisticated understanding of changes such as highly interdependent economies, a fast expanding and ageing population and climate change, that affect all of our lives,” said Duncan Wingham, chief executive of Nerc, when announcing the new centre.

“[This] new Centre for Doctoral Training will equip tomorrow’s researchers with the skills necessary to maximise the opportunities big data offers to develop risk analysis, contributing to this important area of the economy.”

Despite a perceived skills shortage, Professor Pollard does not believe that the UK higher education sector has failed to cultivate knowledge in this area – although he said his institution’s MSc in environmental risk management is one of only a few available in this area in the UK.

“I don’t think the sector has been poor, but our intention here is to stimulate some cross-fertilisation between those who know how to manage data well, and those with knowledge about the use of sound evidence to manage risk,” he said. “The opportunity here is to bring data and risk management skill sets together.”

chris.parr@tesglobal.com

In numbers

56,000 - the number of big data jobs the UK is expected to create each year until 2020

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