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Master big data or go out of date

Companies and countries alike must learn to master big data, or they will find themselves out-thought, out-flanked and out-dated, according to a new report from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, the leading UK charity supporting engineering-related research and education worldwide.

The Foundation launched its Foresight review of big data last month and, at the same time, announced a conditional grant of £10 million over five years to support research by the UK’s Alan Turing Institute on engineering applications of big data.

The report advocates that the Foundation, and the engineering profession more generally, needs to adopt a ‘data-centric engineering’ perspective. It characterises data-centric engineering as a way of thinking that recognises the value of data as an asset in itself and puts data considerations at the core of engineering design.

Data-centric engineering, the report continues, will improve performance, safety, reliability and efficiency of assets, infrastructures and complex machines. From cradle to grave, design to decommissioning, big data analytics will feature at all phases of the life-cycle of engineered systems, and will inform new developments as part of an iterative process.

Analytics will create value from a wide range of data, informing not only asset and machine performance but linking these to the physical, economic, social, and human environments in which they sit.

The report draws on the findings of an international expert advisory panel led by Prof Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southampton and Chairman of the Open Data Institute.

Prof Richard Clegg, Managing Director of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation said: ‘Our report concludes that within the next five to 10 years we are going to witness step changes in sensor technology, data-driven intelligent systems, computer science and algorithms for data analysis, impacting all aspects of the business life-cycle - from design to manufacturing, maintenance to decommissioning.

‘This report sets the high-level strategic direction and funding priorities for the Foundation in the field of “data-centric engineering”. Big data is going to bridge the gap from monitoring “what is” to predicting “what if”. The Foundation intends to become a major supporter of international research in the field, partnering with organisations including the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.’

According to the report, at the heart of data-centric engineering ‘is the responsible handling of decentralised data assets’. It proposes that the Lloyd’s Register Foundation should take a leading role to ‘catalyse entrepreneurship in the data ecosystem by supporting innovative ideas and business models in its strategic sectors’.

Regulation and standards are also seen as vital: ‘The Foundation can take the leading role in formulating the codes, standards, regulation and sector-specific terms of use for data. Together with clear requirements and guidelines for continuous capture of data provenance, this is the basis for accountable and trusted data-driven supply chains.'

The report further recommends that the Foundation should support 'data certification services for the new class of data assets that will be central to safety and security in 21st century engineering. In complex engineering, we also need certification for the analytical methods and predictive models that are applied to data. Working with organisations such as the Open Data Institute, the Foundation should support consultancy and data certification products in this space.’

In response, the Foundation has set four priorities for itself:

  • Technology road-mapping: collaborating with the research community to forecast technology developments in data-centric engineering and plan and co-ordinate efforts.
  • Design for data: recognising that embedded sensors, intelligent systems and data management will form part of engineering design requirements. 
  • Codes and standards: as more data is generated, collected, transmitted, stored, and manipulated by engineering systems, there is a need for assurance of the quality, traceability, security and integrity of that data. 
  • Data analytics: developing algorithms and mathematical models for data analysis, helping make informed decisions to enhance the safety, reliability and performance of assets and infrastructure.

In support of these objectives, the Foundation has offered a conditional grant of £10 million over five years to the UK's Alan Turing Institute to support its research in the engineering applications of big data. The outputs would be to enhance the safety, reliability and performance of the major infrastructure on which modern society relies, in line with the Foundation’s charitable aims.

UK Chancellor George Osborne confirmed in his autumn statement in 2014 that the Alan Turing Institute, named in honour of the wartime code breaker, will be headquartered at The British Library in London. The UK government has committed a total of £42 million to March 2020 to help fund the new institute’s work in the data sciences. The Institute will provide a national centre to promote advanced research and translational work in the application of data science. 

The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is responsible for the Institute. Professor Philip Nelson, CEO of the EPSRC said: ‘We warmly welcome the Foundation’s generous grant offer’.

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