UALR Lab Translates Big Data Into Dollars

UALR Lab Translates Big Data Into Dollars
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)

A reporter is zooming around downtown Little Rock, zipping past the soon-to-be-renamed Metropolitan Tower and down Spring Street toward the Arkansas River. As she prepares to swoop over the Old State House, her legs start to buckle and nausea strikes.

Her tour guide lets up on the controls, slowing the visitor’s wingless flight and letting her regain her balance.

For a novice to virtual reality, the Virtual Data Lab at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock proves the saying: Seeing is believing. The experience is as dizzying as the technology the lab is seeking to exploit.

Humans are digitizing every aspect of life, translating every thought, every endeavor into something that can be read on a computer screen. This act of translation is creating infinite bits of new information — “big data,” to use the phrase popular in the world of technology.

What’s data? The photo of your dog that you just posted to Facebook, your tweet about the lameness of the Super Bowl, every “LOL” ever texted.

But data is also inventory and sales figures at every Wal-Mart store in the world. In fact, much of the success of the world’s biggest retailer can be attributed to the innovative ways in which it started sharing this data with suppliers more than two decades ago.

The spread of computers into every realm is an opportunity for sectors other than retail to leverage lots of information — data — into ways to improve operations and increase profits. If something can be digitized, it can be quantified. If it can be quantified, it can be measured. What can be measured can be educational and predictive. And if knowledge, as another saying goes, is power, then the ability to predict the future based on past information — data — is a superpower.

Every field is affected but few more than science and business, traditionally heavy on numbers.

UALR’s $5 million Emerging Analytics Center, which opened in June, has a variety of roles. One is to help businesses and others translate the vast amounts of data made available by computer technology into a better way to do business.

“It is doing economic development in a totally different way,” said Joe Swaty, operations director of the center.

One of the center’s best tools, and certainly one of its coolest, is its new and improved Virtual Data Lab, whose EmergiFLEX equipment provides the virtual reality that allows a reporter, wearing special glasses, to virtually fly through downtown Little Rock as reproduced by Google Earth. The experience is so real that it’s disorienting.

That virtual reality, however, has many real-world uses.

Clay Gordon, executive vice president and chief development officer of Nabholz Construction Corp., praised the facility.

In designing a project, Nabholz uses building information modeling, or BIM, software that translates two-dimensional information — drawings, blueprints — into three dimensions.

Nabholz sends its 3-D models to the Emerging Analytics Center and then brings a project team — the designers, architects, engineers and owners — to the center’s lab, which has transformed those models into virtual reality. “Instead of looking at that model on a computer screen, we’re able to put it in that facility and — as you probably experienced yourself — you’re able to put on the glasses and literally walk around that [virtual building],” Gordon said.

“When you combine what we do with building information modeling, and putting it on a real-live scale, you’re able to really, truly show the client and ourselves and the design team what that end product is going to be like before we ever put a shovel in the ground.”

Some people struggle to visualize designs — of a home, an office building, a hospital — represented in only two dimensions. The EAC and its Virtual Data Lab can put people into what appears for all the world to be a three-dimensional home, office building or hospital. “Visualization is huge,” Gordon said.

“If we’re on a project and we discover something in the course of construction, it obviously has potential to stop a job, cost time and cost money to make those changes,” he said. But with the use of BIM and the help of the Emerging Analytics Center, “we’re able to — in a short, simple way — save a lot of time and money by making decisions sooner and avoiding changes” and potentially costly change orders.

Nabholz previously had been a customer of UALR’s original Virtual Reality Center with its Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or CAVE system. The firm used the CAVE system to display the new Magnolia Regional Medical Center that Nabholz was building.

The hospital CEO, a board member and the head of nursing used the CAVE to explore the design of their new hospital. “And it was tremendously beneficial for the head of nursing, because she was able to really get a feel for the space,” Gordon said, such as the distance between nurse areas and patient rooms.

Since then, Nabholz has used UALR’s virtual reality systems more than half a dozen times, including with clients CARTI and Southwest Power Pool.

The health care industry also sees the benefits of UALR’s Virtual Reality Lab. The lab, using actual patient MRI data, can put a doctor “inside” a patient’s body, enlarging a spine many times and projecting it in three dimensions for enhanced analysis. A haptic interface allows users to interact with and “touch” the images.

Ahead of the Game

In many ways, UALR got a jump-start on the big data revolution with its early emphasis on information science and information quality, as realized in the 1999 founding of the Donaghey College of Engineering & Information Technology. The school’s first Virtual Reality Center became operational in 2001, and the college partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2006 to create the nation’s first academic program in information quality.

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.”