Fall 2014

Better Living through Big Data

UA researchers use analytics to better understand human behavior

Sudha Ram is working out how to take the pulse of humanity, starting with the UA’s 39,000 students. 

A pioneer in the growing field of big data studies, Ram holds the Anheuser-Busch Chair of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Eller College of Management.

“Big data involves sifting through large varieties and volumes of data to extract patterns, make them actionable, and provide insights,” she says.

Through her campus-based research center, Insite, Ram and her students are working on a test project they call Building a Smarter Campus. 

It capitalizes on the fact that everyone on campus uses the Cat Card — a smart card containing a computer chip — to buy lunch at the Student Union, to pay for parking or a haircut, to enter the gym or research labs, to sign up for tutoring.

“So really what you have,” Ram says, “is a slew of detailed records on people and their activities. If you take this data and anonymize it so as not to violate anyone’s privacy, you can start to connect people’s behavior with data about performance in their classes.” Her immediate goal is to combine Cat Card and student academic data with data about Wi-Fi use in the dorms to spot students at risk of dropping out. 

Of course, actually intervening would require dropping the student’s anonymity protection and alerting his or her counselor. Ram says the project hasn’t reached that point yet — it’s still in the data evaluation stage. But when it does, “intervention will have to be applied in a way that doesn’t violate the student’s privacy. So there’s got to be an opt-in from people, it’s got to be done in a way that people are comfortable with.”

Ram maintains that regardless of what policies result from the current global debate on data privacy, big data analytics is here to stay because it provides powerful insights and advantages to organizations and individuals. 

Another of Ram’s current projects takes advantage of the widespread use of social media such as Twitter. It’s aimed at improving hospitals’ abilities to handle spikes in the number of patients with asthma flare-ups. She’s writing algorithms to combine past hospital records with hourly data from weather/pollution sensors and the appearance of key words — “inhaler,” “asthma,” “up all night” — on Twitter.  

“You can combine this information in such a way that it will give you a more accurate prediction of how many people, and whether they are elderly or children, are likely to show up in the emergency room on a particular day,” she says.

In the coming decade Ram foresees the confluence of mobile technologies — phones and wearable sensors — and the so-called “Internet of things” — smart refrigerators that communicate with grocery stores, self-navigating vehicles, and the like — working together with big data programs to make our lives easier.

“All of these things are going to come together to relieve us of the burden of always having to figure out what action to take and when to take it,” she says.