URI is new home to DataSpark

Data integration, analytics group join URI to advance the power of ‘Big Data’ to inform policy

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KINGSTON, R.I. – APRIL 11, 2017– DataSpark, the home of the Rhode Island DataHub and the former data analytics arm of The Providence Plan, joined The University of Rhode Island in February 2017.

For many years, DataSpark has maintained numerous robust databases and conducted data analyses critical to public policy and many state agencies in the state.  Those databases, including those related to health, education, workforce, and much more, have moved with DataSpark to URI and will become a component of URI.  DataSpark Director Kimberly Pierson and the group’s eight staff members are now University employees and they report to Karim Boughida, dean of University Libraries. DataSpark will be housed in URI’s Robert L. Carothers Library and Learning Commons as of June 2017.

“When we first started discussions with DataSpark, it was clear that URI and DataSpark share the common mission and vision of serving the best interests of Rhode Island and its citizens, and we could do this work better together than either of us alone,” said URI Provost Donald H. DeHayes. “We quickly became very excited about the great opportunities that would develop for faculty, staff, students and Rhode Island through a partnership involving the University and DataSpark. We set out to find a way to create a formal alliance,” said DeHayes.

“Good data — that’s comprehensive, consistent, and credible — is a public good,” said Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training Director Scott Jensen. “Joining Rhode Island’s flagship public university is good for DataSpark, good for URI, and good for the public. I have no doubt that this partnership will produce information that is accurate, objective, relevant, and timely and lead to good decision-making on important issues of public policy.”

One of the cornerstones of DataSpark’s work is that data analysis and analytics should lead to sound policymaking. Among the group’s services are: data analysis, data visualization, web application development, Geographic Information System mapping, data systems development and report development.

DataSpark’s Pierson, who holds a master’s degree in regional and urban planning from the University of Illinois, came to Rhode Island nine years ago. As an urban planner, she has expertise in census data, statistics and data analysis as they relate to state and municipal programs and services.

“This program has a very skilled team and rich data, and because the library is in the business of providing and curating data in a variety of forms, we felt this would be a great collaboration,” Boughida said.

“We were interested in their data experts and the data itself,” he said. “DataSpark is becoming part of the library because we are interdisciplinary and the learning hub of the University. Every student, faculty member and researcher has access to our resources. The libraries, like the University as a whole, are highly focused on helping the state move forward, and we reach around the world to solve problems as well. This collaboration will also help students and other users develop new data and research skills.”

Boughida said DataSpark will work with URI’s new Big Data Collaborative, which has developed over recent years. The Big Data Collaborative is a multi-college, cross-disciplinary effort including a cluster of nine new faculty members, several existing faculty, a proposed new Data Science major, and the formation of a high-performance computing core facility and center, which serves as a resource for URI faculty and students and other universities and colleges around the state.

“With URI’s Big Data Collaborative now underway, the timing was perfect for this move,” Pierson said. “We can help enhance URI’s curriculum and research efforts with real-world data sets. I see us doing lots of fantastic things together.”

Joan Peckham, URI professor and chair of Computer Science and Statistics, and co-coordinator of the Big Data Initiative, said the data sciences and social science communities are excited about the arrival of DataSpark.

“Faculty who are affiliated with our new interdisciplinary Social Science Institute for Research in Education and Policy are particularly interested in the opportunities this presents for research and service to the state,” Peckham said.

“We will build on DataSpark’s strengths, which includes the collection and analysis of economic and social data,” Boughida said. “They still have many contracts and commitments across the state. We’d like to connect that work with our faculty and students, explore business intelligence, and seek national partnerships.”

Rich Kubica, URI’s interim chief Information officer who provides Core Facility Services for High Performance Computing commented, “URI is providing the core services support for DataSpark. We are also expanding URI’s High Performance Computing. These services will provide additional computational capabilities for analysis and research by both DataSpark scientists and University researchers. “

While DataSpark’s focus is the state’s economy and social systems, URI is using Big Data to examine major national and international issues as well as local Rhode Island challenges, such as those related to health reform, coastal resiliency, workforce development, and educational opportunities.

“This alliance is a perfect match with the University’s mission and commitments as the flagship public research and state Land Grant institution,” Boughida said. “Many citizens are asking public officials to make decisions and policy grounded in good data and thoughtful analysis.  Indeed, this is truly a public good.”