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Why NJ has a small footprint in big data

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Margaret Brennan-Tonetta, associate VP, economic development, Rutgers, and president of NJBDA.
Margaret Brennan-Tonetta, associate VP, economic development, Rutgers, and president of NJBDA. - ()

Tech-watchers say the spread of big-data analytics tends to result in more jobs, higher profits and improved efficiency, but New Jersey's lack of super-computer infrastructure has been a barrier to sector growth.

“You’re losing a huge amount of productivity and potential,” New Jersey Big Data Alliance President Margaret Brennan-Tonetta said. “The loss of productivity as a result of companies that are reluctant or incapable of adopting advanced computing technologies of data analytical skill sets is just huge.”

The NJBDA was established in 2013 by Rutgers University along with seven partners, with the group now number a full dozen members.

It aims to help New Jersey businesses and higher education institutions “leverage, analyze and protect data -- increasing their competitiveness, improving their ability to secure federal funding and driving innovation,” according to the organization.

Big data – referring to extremely large data sets showing trends and patterns -- has become increasingly more prominent in recent years. Many higher education institutions have introduced data analytics majors as private industries seek out applicants with data analytical skills.

But these burgeoning big data pros also need access to advanced computing machines, often loosely dubbed supercomputers. The private sector has adapted to the rise of big data quickly, yet New Jersey’s state infrastructure for related analytics lags behind other states in the region, leaving a hole for workers who want to learn these skills.

In 2012, Massachusetts established its own state-run big data initiative and has since invested $165 million toward developing advanced computing infrastructure. New York established the High Performance Computing Consortium in 2008 along with private partners and five universities; they’ve since spent $100 million developing advanced computing systems capable of crunching data analytics.

In 2013, New Jersey invested $10 million to create one supercomputer housed at Rutgers University. Other than recognizing the New Jersey Big Data Alliance as the official body representing big data initiatives, the state’s investment in data analytics has stagnated.

Most recently, the NJBDA asked for a $150,000 appropriation from the state to develop a strategic plan for New Jersey’s advanced computing infrastructure, but the bill granting the appropriation never made it out of committee.

“One of the biggest roadblocks is finances, not just for the alliance but for the state as a whole,” Brennan-Tonetta said. “Advanced computation equipment is expensive.”

Advanced computing systems differ from traditional desktop computers by their massive processing ability, which allows them to analyze huge data sets collected by private companies. These data are used to detect consumer preferences and trends that may not be recognizable with more rudimentary levels of analysis.

“Every person, every activity, everything is creating data every day,” Brennan-Tonetta said. “You can’t drive anywhere without cameras. If you go to the doctor there’s electronic medical records. It’s far more pervasive than most people realize.”

Brennan-Tonetta said companies are already creating new product lines attuned to user preferences based on what data trends have shown. For example, The Campbell Soup Co., based in Camden, invested in startup Habit, which provides specific nutritional suggestions based on a user’s health data.

NJBDA has primarily worked with higher education institutions with the intention that research developed by educational institutions will lead to private companies utilizing that data to improve their business.

“The insights gleamed from that [research] then becomes transferable,” said Edward Chapel, senior vice President and chief operating officer for NJEdge, a nonprofit technology services provider and a member of the NJBDA. “You have corporate America interacting with the higher education research community to take the insights and put them in place for better efficiency, profitability and product lines.”

NJBDA’s work has attracted the attention of private companies such as Daiichi Sankyo Inc. and Ricoh USA Inc. that serve as corporate affiliates, but New Jersey’s Legislature has been slow to embrace the issue of data analytics.

At a recent conference hosted by NJEdge, members of the NJBDA discussed ways to make politicians interested in the alliance’s work, but couldn’t agree on a best approach.

“Our goal is to re-engage these persons who are interested in doing this and begin to demonstrate to them the value proposition for this alliance,” Chapel said.

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Arthur Augustyn

Arthur Augustyn

Arthur Augustyn grew up in Massachusetts and previously covered the video game industry in Los Angeles, city politics in Malibu, California, and local news in Bergen County before working at NJBIZ. He currently covers cannabis, government and tech.

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