The University of Essex is to play a leading role in a “big data” project which aims to help policymakers make better use of information collected by businesses and local government organisations.

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A new £5million Data Research Centre for Smart Analytics, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for five years, will be led by the University of Essex, working in partnership with the universities of East Anglia and Kent, which together form the Eastern Academic Research Consortium (ARC), and with partners in business and local government.

The Data Research Centre will make data routinely collected by business and local government organisations accessible for academics as a national resource in order to undertake outstanding research in the social sciences in ways that safeguard individuals’ identities.

That research will provide a sound evidence-base to inform policy development, implementation and evaluation.

Announced as part of £14m of funding for the second phase of the ESRC’s investment in big data, the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, said: “Making the most of large and complex data is a huge priority for government as it has the potential to transform public and private sector organisations, drive research and development, increase productivity and innovation, and enable market-changing products and services.

“The new data research centres will help the UK grasp these opportunities and get ahead in the global race.”

The latest funding, part of a pot of £64mn announced in October 2013, will be used to support the establishment of four ESRC Business and Local Government Data Research Centres at Essex, Glasgow, UCL and Leeds Universities.

They aim to give organisations, both large and small, a competitive edge by helping them improve their business decisions, as well as offer insight into how they can expand.

The centre at Essex will offer a suite of big data solutions, from training to consultancy to help the business and local government communities maximise the value of their big data to research the drivers of economic growth and the provision of services.

Its data storage facility for business and local government data will allow researchers to access data in a secure environment that guarantees confidentiality of the information.

The centre will also manage, curate and link the data in such a way that new insights can be made available to the users. The centre takes advantage of the existing experience and expertise in the field of secure big data storage and safe access at Essex within the UK Data Service (UKDS) and the new Administrative Data Service (ADS) based there.

University of Essex vice-chancellor Professor Anthony Forster said the centre would be central to showcasing the University’s excellence in big data analytics.

“This is a fantastic initiative for Essex and really helps us position ourselves as number one in the UK and Europe for harvesting data analytics and applying the data in new and exciting ways to support our business partners,” he said.

The Data Research Centre will be based within the university’s new £21m state-of-the-art building which will house the Essex Business School, which carries out business-based research and collaborations with industry on big data, and is adjacent to the Knowledge Gateway development, providing a high quality environment for innovative business start-ups and SMEs.

The project leader and director of the new centre, Professor Vania Sena of Essex Business School, said: “Some companies and local authorities just do not have the knowledge and skills to exploit the vast amount of data they produce as part of their day-to-day activities to their advantage.

“The ESRC Data Research Centre for Smart Analytics will become a place where solutions are created and data are used in a smart way to improve their performance. They are sitting on a potential goldmine but often they don’t have the skills and the knowledge to use that data in a smart way.”

The university has an international reputation for the collection, curation, management and analysis of big data and is home to the UK Data Archive – the UK’s largest collection of digital research data in the social sciences and humanities.

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