UALR Lab Translates Big Data Into Dollars

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Mar. 3, 2014 12:00 am  

Grad student Mohamed Messaoudi enters a virtual world as he interacts with the EmergiFLEX 3-D data visualization equipment at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Emerging Analytics Center. (Photo by Russell Powell)

The science of information quality is a tool to manage big data to tease out the useful, important data, said Mary Good, the founding dean of the EIT College. Good chairs the Emerging Analytics Center Management Board. The EAC itself is headed by UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson.

“One of the problems we have is that you have these big data pools, but you in many cases don’t know which pieces of that data pool are good data and which are not,” Good said. “Data quality efforts are designed to solve that problem.”

Analyzing data to find ways to improve performance “is a big, big effort these days,” she said. “And it’s going on all the way from people like Wal-Mart, which has been doing things like that for a very long time, to very small companies today.”

Those companies and institutions — like UALR — that analyze big data are part of a new and growing service sector. In December, Forbes reported predictions that the market for big data would reach $16.1 billion in 2014, “growing six times faster than the overall IT market.”

The EAC emphasizes data visualization through its Virtual Reality Lab because visualization — “seeing” that new building, that diseased spine — helps people grasp knowledge clearly and quickly.

Good has a long perspective that’s useful in explaining the digital progression of technology. She has served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has received many awards, including the National Science Foundation’s highest honor, the Vannevar Bush Award. Good chaired the National Science Board from 1988-91 and was the undersecretary for technology in the U.S. Department of Commerce & Technology during President Clinton’s first term.

“When computers first came out, you ended up with a stack of computer paper trying to figure out what all those numbers mean,” Good said. “And you worked your way through those. It was very, very difficult to get good information out of that.

“Well, if you can analyze that data and create a visual picture of it, the end result is that you can get knowledge very quickly, and that’s the whole issue.”

Visualization “gives you information almost instantaneously,” she said.

It’s too early in the life of the center to quantify all the ways that it can improve businesses’ bottom lines, and its Virtual Reality Lab is just one facet of the EAC, whose partners include Mechdyne Corp., Hewlett-Packard and Today’s Office.

But the center is seeking to be self-sustaining by charging for its services. Fees for use of the lab that includes the building of models range from $400 per hour for UALR and other Arkansas academic institutions to $600 per hour for out-of-state businesses. In addition to Nabholz, clients have included Dassault Falcon Jet and Caterpillar Inc.

The EAC, as part of an academic enterprise, is also helping in education and the arts.

“We’ve got art students who are using it; we’ve got furniture design students and faculty who are using it.” Good said. “It’s an extraordinary tool for training engineers and people like that.”

She described how Caterpillar brought the design for a motor grader to the center and the lab created a virtual grader real enough to cause a lab visitor to put a hand out to touch.

“Students can sit there and talk to the engineers from Caterpillar and Caterpillar can explain to them the detail of design that went into that grader and why those details were important. The ability to do that — you can teach students more in two hours than you could in a day.”



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