Targeted application areas to include transportation, health, social science, and learning analytics. 

Sept. 8, 2015

ANN ARBOR—Progress in a wide spectrum of fields ranging from medicine to transportation relies critically on the ability to gather, store, search, and analyze “big data”—collections of information so vast and complex that they challenge traditional approaches to data processing and analysis. The University of Michigan plans to invest $100 million over the next five years in a new Data Science Initiative (DSI) that will enhance opportunities for student and faculty researchers across the University to tap into the enormous potential of big data.

“Big data can provide dramatic insights into the nature of disease, climate change, social behavior, business and economics, engineering, and the basic biological and physical sciences,” said U-M President Mark Schlissel. “With our widely recognized strengths across all of these areas, and our longstanding culture of collaboration across disciplines, U-M is in a unique position to leverage this investment in data science for the good of society.”

Under the auspices of the DSI, U-M plans to:

  • hire 35 new faculty over the next four years and engage existing faculty across campus;
  • expand U-M’s research computing capacity;
  • strengthen data management, storage, analytics, and training resources;
  • foster new methodological approaches to big data;
  • provide new educational opportunities for students pursuing careers in data science;
  • and support interdisciplinary data-related research initiatives.

“Data science has become as a fourth approach to scientific discovery, in addition to experimentation, modeling, and computation,” said Provost Martha Pollack. “To spur innovation while providing focus, the DSI will launch challenge initiatives in four critical interdisciplinary areas that build on our existing strengths in transportation research, health sciences, learning analytics, and social science research.”

Prof. Brian Athey, Michael A. Savageau Collegiate Professor and Chair, Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics (DCM&B) and Al Hero, R. Jamison and Betty Williams Professor of Engineering are co-directors of MIDAS.

In one project at U-M’s Transportation Research Institute, for example, researchers have collected a continuous stream of data at a rate of 10 times per second from each of nearly 3,000 private cars, trucks and buses on the streets of Ann Arbor in order to test the operation of connected vehicles. The DSI will help collect, store and analyze the huge amount of data being generated as researchers affiliated with the U-M Mobility Transportation Center expand number of vehicles to more than 20,000 across Southeast Michigan.

In medicine and public health, U-M researchers seek to use big data to boost the effectiveness of data-driven biomedical and health research to improve patient care. By sifting through the massive amount of data generated from DNA sequencing, medical histories, and other sources, for example, they are exploring ways to more precisely diagnose or assess an individual’s risk for certain types of cancer, and to formulate the most effective personalized therapies.

Another novel area of research at U-M is drawing on big data to examine the nature of teaching and learning with the aim of providing instruction tailored to the specific needs of individual students. This will involve, for example, gathering and analyzing a rich variety of data from thousands of student activities and experiences to uncover the connections between student behavior and success for different kinds of students.

And in social science, U-M researchers are studying the potential of analyzing massive amounts of data generated by social media to replace or complement conventional surveying techniques as a way to gain insight into a broad range of socioeconomic questions.

Industry engagement is also central to the initiative, with a particular focus on the automotive, advanced manufacturing, chemical, finance, health care, and pharmaceutical sectors.

Reflecting the broad promise of big data, all academic units on campus are supporting the initiative. As part of the DSI, U-M will be establishing the Michigan Institute for Data Science.

“Big data is revolutionizing research in an extraordinary range of disciplines,” said S. Jack Hu, interim vice president for research. “With this initiative, our goal is to spark innovation in research across campus while inspiring further advances in the techniques of data science itself.”

An inaugural symposium to mark the launch of the Data Science Initiative took place October 6, 2015, in the Rackham Building.

For more information on the Data Science Initiative and the inaugural symposium, please visit the Michigan Institute for Data Science website at