To accelerate the emerging field of Big Data, the National Science Foundation (NSF) today announced the establishment of four regional hubs for data science innovation across the United States. Covering all 50 states, these hubs include commitments from 281 organizations – from universities and cities to foundations and corporations – with the ability to expand further over time. The NSF’s initial award for this activity totals more than $5 million.

In the northeast region, Columbia University will serve as the lead agency for the Northeast Big Data Innovation Hub, and will bring together experts from the public and private sector to collaborate on data-driven solutions to problems in health care, energy, finance, urbanization, natural science and education.

One of the Northeast Hub’s four themes will be ethics and policy, led by School of Information Studies (iSchool) associate professor Jennifer Stromer-Galley, and technology researchers Mark Latonero and Karen Levy from the Data & Society Research Institute. This group will focus on questions tied to the ethical collection and use of big data, including consumer and health information.

“Ethical issues in large-scale data collection and analysis are of keen interest to the Northeast Big Data Hub,” said Stromer-Galley. “The Ethics & Policy group will connect with substantive research occurring across the Hub, and will focus on issues and policy questions related to Big Data collection and use.”

Key topics of research will include data ownership and stewardship, rights and control of data, institutional infrastructures for ethical research, anonymization and de-identification, and examining risks, harms, and benefits of big data research, noted Stromer-Galley.

“Because Big Data research is a relatively new frontier, but is quickly emerging as a ‘new normal’ in scientific inquiry, there are not yet well-established or universally followed standards regarding ethical considerations,” Stromer-Galley explained. “By carefully considering and proposing such frameworks, the Ethics & Policy group hopes to draw from the broad expertise of the Hub’s network to develop such standards across substantive research areas.”

The idea for a Big Data hub network came in 2012, after President Obama announced a $200 million National Big Data Research & Development Initiative to apply data analytics to education, environmental and biomedical research, and national security.

The NSF, one of six federal agencies involved, proposed the add-on initiative that divided the country into the “regional innovation hubs,” each harnessing experts in academia, industry, government, and the non-profit sector, to address problems too big for any one to take on alone.

In addition to the Northeast Hub run out of Columbia, the other institutions participating are, Georgia Tech and the University of North Carolina (South Hub), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Midwest Hub) and the University of California, San Diego, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington (West Hub).

The announcement of the Hubs awards comes days before the first national stakeholders meeting of the Big Data Hubs, to be held on Nov. 3-5 in Arlington, Virginia. This national charrette will provide an opportunity for leaders and researchers representing each Hub to discuss governance and sustainability models and identify next steps.