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November 6, 2014

Big data: Chancellor addresses Pitt’s role

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher addresses the Oct. 23 University Senate plenary session.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher addresses the Oct. 23 University Senate plenary session.

“I cannot think of a better topic to bring us all together and think, from the perspective of the University of Pittsburgh, how do we respond to these massive changes that are happening and how do we position ourselves?” said Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in his welcoming remarks at the University Senate fall plenary session, “Managing Research Data: Challenges and Opportunities at the University.”

“I come from a background of being in a department that’s steeped in data,” Gallagher said, acknowledging that his views on research data management are influenced by his 21 years at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and as acting deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce.

“Many of the questions that I think are in front of Pitt right now were very much in our mind as well,” said Gallagher in outlining some of those issues and their implications for Pitt.


“It’s not so much that computation and data is new … but that we are now at a time when the scale is rewriting all the rules …The scale now is truly massive … it’s massive and it’s continuing to grow exponentially,” Gallagher said.

The Internet now creates more than 2.5 exabytes (1018 bytes) of data a day. “Every two hours we generate as much information on the Internet as existed in the entire printed record of the world,” he said. “Ninety percent of all the information that exists is just two years old, and that’s going to be true two years from now because it’s going to double again.”

Connected devices now outnumber humans by a factor of 2.5 “and the number is doubling every two years,” while the number of smartphones has reached 1.75 billion, one for every four human beings on the planet.

Social media now is the primary generator of big data, once the realm of high-energy physics and astronomy research and large-scale government business operations. “That means that the humanities now have as big or large data streams as anybody else,” Gallagher said.

“The use, availability and risks associated with steeping ourselves in such an information-rich environment are massive and with us now, even though we don’t understand these consequences very well.

“What is both a data and a communication infrastructure is connecting us in ways that we have not yet fully adapted to,” he said.

Norms across personal, institutional and governmental boundaries have been thrown into flux, as have expectations for what should be open and what shouldn’t, and on what data is kept, where and by whom.

The chancellor said issues of custodianship and responsibility, questions of jurisdiction and standards for openness and data sharing remain to be resolved. Data quality is a concern: As we gather data, is it good data? What about malicious spoofing or manipulation of data? What are the implications for human subjects research? And how do we address the geopolitical conflicts that arise through these struggles over data privacy?

“I think the real challenge is not just to position ourselves for what is happening today, but in a time when it’s changing logarithmically. … How do we position ourselves to stay at the forefront of these issues?

“What does it mean for our research efforts, which will be so enabled by our ability to work with and manage and use this data?

“How do we position ourselves to have that capability, to enjoy all the developments that are happening here and yet at the same time manage the very real threats and vulnerabilities that will arise from that as well?

“What is our business model for sustaining this? If we are dependent on one-time infusions of capital to episodically refresh, we already are going to be behind. This is one where you really have to bake it into how we operate in a fundamental way so that we’re constantly refreshing and staying up.

“It almost certainly means we’re not going to be an island unto ourselves. The scale alone says that we are going to be as interconnected as anyone else in this business.

“What are our responsibilities in participating in that incredibly interconnected environment? How do we protect our interests and our information and yet how do we share and enable it and do things with it at the same time?” Gallagher said.

“I think that it’s one of the most important challenges facing the University, but I also think it’s one of our biggest opportunities,” the chancellor said.

“I think the areas where Pitt has been so strong and so capable are ones that are going to be most enabled by the technology revolution in front of us, so I’m also incredibly excited.”

The 2014 fall plenary session was streamed live and is posted online. The video can be accessed using the link and password posted under the “plenary” tab at

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 6