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CCST Annual Report 2011-12: Big Data, Big Future

September 7, 2012
CCST Annual Report 2011-12

This editorial appears as the opening letter of the 2011-12 CCST Annual Report from the CCST Board and Council Chairs .

An important key to California's future - economic, technological, and social - is information. Research indicates that analyzing large data sets is rapidly becoming a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity, growth and innovation. This genuinely is the beginning of a new information age.

We have been hearing about the 'information age' for so long that the phrase has become trite. Nonetheless we are reaching a point where the knowledge available to us has exceeded our ability to easily grasp it. According to a recent report by Cisco, by 2015, global internet traffic may reach 966 exabytes (1018) per year. The Pentagon is working to expand its worldwide communication network to go beyond these limits, handling yottabytes (1024) of data, each of which is the equivalent of 500 quintillion (1018) pages of text.

The rise in information available coincides with the increasing ability to gather information inexpensively in a wide range of new settings. Networks of inexpensive sensors gather vastly expanded data collection on geochemical characteristics of land areas under environmental scrutiny. The costs of sequencing genomes have dropped from millions of dollars to hundreds, significantly expanding personalized diagnoses and treatments.

California is at the forefront of the big data revolution in a number of ways. It is home to many of the companies pioneering the acquisition of information (e.g., Google and 23andMe) and the integration of large data sets into practice, not to mention the Blue Gene Q supercomputer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, - currently the fastest in the world. California is also home to The Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego, a nationally renowned interdisciplinary center that seeks to identify and describe the underlying issues and consequences of technology- enabled change in information and communications practices in government and industry.

CCST has long advocated an approach to policy based on the best and most complete scientific knowledge available; being able to access and use substantially more data in its decision-making processes would, in principle, allow the state to adopt more efficient and effective approaches to infrastructure and environmental issues. In some cases, there is the possibility of solving highly complex technical problems, such as environmental management, in a more systematic way. Even more promising, though, is the notion that the wealth of data being gathered - still a largely untapped resource - stands to benefit most those research institutions and communities which are able to collaborate in new and potentially unprecedented ways.

The advent of big data poses challenges, as well. Concerns about privacy and security are real and significant. In addition, amassing overwhelming quantities of data without effective systems for storage and analysis may hinder, rather than enhance, productive discourse. Solutions to these issues will require state, national, and international coordination, but California can be an important trendsetter. Indeed, if there is any state poised to benefit from integrating and analyzing unprecedented amounts of information, it is California. CCST's role, as an unbiased facilitator for bringing together all sectors of the S&T community to advise the state and develop long-term visions for California, has never been more important.

Karl Pister, CCST Board Chair
Mim John, CCST Council Chair
Peter Cowhey, CCST Council Vice Chair

You can read the CCST 2012 Annual Report online, or download the report as a PDF file (2.3MB).

CCST Spotlight is a weekly newsletter focusing on CCST activities and highlighting innovative science and technology research, applications, and policy issues in California. The Spotlight editor is Danny DeCillis. We welcome information and feedback from our readers about science and technology at work in the private, public, and education sectors. To send us questions or comments, contact us at, or (951) 682-8701.