Massachusetts’ Big Data Ecosystem – A Success Story

Written by Simone Schmieder,  swissnex Boston

Success stories often begin with collaborations of different partners. This is also the case for the Massachusetts Big Data ecosystem. A main pillar for the success of the state’s big data ecosystem was the Massachusetts Big Data Initiative launched by then-Governor Deval Patrick in 2012. The initiative engages collaboratively with industry, academia, government, and nonprofit partners.

The Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative directs the Mass Big Data Initiative to expand, leverage, and deploy regional big data assets and resources, supporting strategic development of new opportunities that will boost Massachusetts’ comparative advantages, and addressing the ecosystem’s unmet needs and barriers.

Massachusetts Technology Collaborative

Massachusetts Technology Collaborative

Cooperation is key

People from science and government are not always best friends. This sometimes results from a lack of understanding and dialogue. But the big issues that shape the world of tomorrow can only be solved if groups who understand science and technology work together with government.  Pat Larkin, Director, Innovation Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative explains how Massachusetts overcame these problems, “The Massachusetts Big Data Initiative was formed during a Big Data roundtable, convened by MassTech in 2012. At the roundtable, government, academia, and industry came together to discuss the best ways to support new business formation and improve the ecosystem for startup companies in the emerging big data sector in Massachusetts. The result of those discussions was the agreement to do a full-fledged initiative focused on maintaining and expanding the global leadership of Massachusetts big data sector.”

The Massachusetts Big Data Ecosystem

Close to 500 companies dealing with Big Data can be found in Massachusetts. This large Big Data ecosystem consists of companies as well-established as IBM and Oracle, but also includes many small startups.  Although the Big Data ecosystem in Massachusetts is considerably well-developed compared to other regions worldwide, the key priorities for action are similar to other regions: Expanding the essential highly-skilled workforce and ensuring the quality of the required infrastructure.

Foundation for Big Data Technology and Use: Research and Education

‘Big Data’ is an umbrella term for challenges in all different kinds of disciplines: Issues in communications, cyber security, health, transportation and energy can all be addressed with the use of big data applications. Many of the Massachusetts-based universities already adapted to the trend in Big Data in the early 2000s and founded dedicated research centers: Boston University’s Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, MIT’s BigData@CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab) Initiative, UMass Amherst’s Institute for Computational Biology, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, and WPI’s Center for Research in Exploratory Data and Information Analysis. This development is not yet completed; this spring, UMass Amherst announced the launch of a New Center for Data Science that will coordinate and significantly expand its capacity for research, education and industry collaboration in support of the exploding demand for acquisition and analysis of Big Data. In addition, this summer WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) launched the nation’s first interdisciplinary PhD program in Data Science.

Not only are the universities the epicenter of research about Big Data, they are also responsible for supplying the industry with educated experts. Six universities offer ‘data science driven’ relevant programs in Massachusetts. If all the Big Data related degrees taken into account, nearly 5’600 students graduated in Massachusetts 2012. One of the challenges Massachusetts is facing is that the majority of the graduates with advanced degrees leave the state after graduation.

MIT takes another way of fulfilling the needs of industry: the school offers an online course aimed at technical professionals and executives. “Our goal is to expand access to MIT’s knowledge and expertise globally via online courses,” said Sanjay Sarma, director of the MIT Office of Digital Learning. “A course on a high-interest topic such as big data is a perfect way for us to begin addressing the learning needs of working professionals who may not otherwise be able to come to MIT to attend courses.” The MIT course ‘Tackling the Challenges of Big Data’ is the first paid MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) worldwide.

Big Data needs big computational force

In order to address the need for greater computational force of the research centers the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) was founded by a consortium of five of the largest research universities in Massachusetts, together with partners from the industry and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The center is open for use by any research organization and millions of virtual experiments are conducted every month. For example, data of the BICEP2 telescope capturing the first images of gravitational waves were mainly computed at MGHPCC and the analysis of data from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN (in Geneva) was also carried out at MGHPCC.

Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

Win-win for every sector

Another factor of the broad support from all sectors was the interdisciplinary nature of the approach. Not only the IT and computer science industry could benefit from the initiative, but also health care and the financial sector. Pat Larkin: “We recognized that the Big Data sector was an area where Massachusetts could first, build on its leadership in computer science, data analytics, and information technology, but second, we could also boost innovation in data-intensive industries that are critical to the state, such as health care and finance. As you develop programs, it’s critical to identify data-intensive industries and engage them in direct discussions regarding their key priorities – whether it is student capture or training workers; opening public data sets, or building high-growth companies – and then more forward on collaborative programs to accomplish those goals.”

The integrated approach was crucial for the success of the Massachusetts Big Data Initiative. Connect the dots between Big Data and the already existing industry in the region is the key to success of such approaches.


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