Jignesh Patel’s Big Data Revolution

Over the past 40 years, Madison has played a significant but often unsung role in the rise of Big Data. Now one UW prof is carrying the torch, working on research with the potential to transform the digital revolution and democratize data as we know it.

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PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Jignesh Patel sits at his desk in the computer sciences building on the UW–Madison campus, not more than a two-minute's walk from Camp Randall.

Quickstep is an ambitious project, with funding from Google, Oracle and the National Science Foundation, among others. It’s also a tad ironic. Currently, only big firms with deep pockets and hundreds of thousands of servers—like the aforementioned funders—have the ability to fully leverage what such a vast pool of data has to offer. It’s too expensive, time-consuming and complicated for the little guys and non-techies to tackle. But if Patel’s Quickstep project succeeds in developing a more efficient system, that could change. The world’s data—ninety-eight percent of which is now stored digitally—could be captured and processed by more organizations, a result in sync with a recently published study from Intuit that forecasted as-yet-untapped benefits big data can bring to small businesses and individual consumers.

“One outcome of Quickstep is just being able to do more with less,” says Chasseur. “Having smaller organizations that have fewer resources being able to take advantage of big data.”

The implications here are huge. More people leveraging large data sets could impact everything from marketing campaigns to health care trends to hiring practices, continuing modern society’s shift away from experience-based decision making and toward data-driven decision making. Understanding demographic trends and predicting purchasing behaviors would no longer be limited to the big shots. Want to know which time of day is most common for women in their thirties to be searching online for health news? Easy. Want to narrow the focus to women in their thirties in south-central Wisconsin searching for common cold remedies? No problem.

Patel says Quickstep is a five- to ten-year project, and though the team has started seeing the first signs of tangible results, it may take  another year or two for private industry to commercialize it. When the outcomes from Quickstep eventually do make it into products on the market, Patel says consumers will see better services at a lower price, with richer interactions. This could mean more powerful and interactive apps for phones and tablets and faster processing on laptops and desktop computers, all for less than what we’re paying now. Online activities like paying bills and booking flights—things that run on databases—would come with fewer headaches.

Quickstep is still solely a UW project, but as Patel brings in collaborators from around the country, this research could make for a striking shift in who and what benefits from big data in the future.

AN INDUSTRY RISES

Traditionally thought of as a field of introverts and brainiacs, computer science itself is benefitting from the way big data is changing the world.

“Twenty-five years ago, I thought we were the people in the background—we weren’t on people’s radar,” says department chair Naughton, talking in his office about the industry’s gradual shift into the mainstream. “Now people are interested in what we’re doing. You have a connection to what’s going on in society now.”

Naughton thinks this could partially explain why his department has seen such growth in recent years. He pegs the number of declared undergrad computer sciences majors at seven hundred. The graduate program in particular has become extremely competitive, with 1250 applications and only 219 students admitted last year, he says. “There’s tremendous interest from students. The wave isn’t even close to cresting.”

Moving forward, Naughton wants to see his department collaborate even more with the local tech community, strengthening the pipeline between the university and local startups and larger companies like Epic. The department also maintains its ties with tech firms across the globe, regularly hooking up students with internships and jobs at the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. 

Microsoft has a strong and particularly unique connection with UW as well. When DeWitt retired from academia in 2008, he took on the role of director of a new Microsoft lab in Madison. Called the Jim Gray Systems Lab, the office inhabits fourth-floor space in a gentrified warehouse on West Main Street, right next to the Southwest Commuter Bike Path.

“It was really a thank-you from Microsoft to the university,” DeWitt says. The lab now employs nine full-time Microsoft staffers who collaborate with select UW computer sciences graduate students and their advisors. Both Patel and Naughton serve as affiliated faculty. DeWitt says that as far as he knows, this partnership between Microsoft and the university is totally unique, noting that the kind of sharing of intellectual property between Microsoft and UW that goes on at the lab is rare—even unheard of—in typical industry–academia relationships. So rare, and legally complicated, that it almost didn’t happen. It came down to a final, personal push from Bill Gates and then-chancellor John Wiley to make the lab a reality.

This forward-looking type of research is important to the department, Naughton says, but he also wants to maintain a high level of instruction to prepare the next generation of Patels and DeWitts. “We’re very serious about teaching in this department.”

Patel shares this commitment to education, adding that if he wanted to (and he doesn’t) he could drop teaching and focus all his time at UW on research. Instead Patel continues to lead both undergrad and graduate-level courses, and he even started an annual software competition for undergraduates on campus called NEST. “The idea is to provide an environment outside the regular curriculum to allow students to take an adventurous leap to a software startup-ish type of an idea,” Patel says.

One local startup that has competed in NEST is the online food ordering business EatStreet. Eric Martell, one of EatStreet’s three co-founders and a computer sciences alumnus, remembers Patel reaching out to his team when they signed up to compete. “Jignesh immediately scheduled up a few times when he wanted to talk, check in and kind of mentor us through the contest,” he says. Martell and company received third place in the 2010 contest, but their ties to Patel never severed; Patel now serves on EatStreet’s board of advisors. “As a young company learning to scale infrastructure, we continued to stay in touch with him. He provided mentorship on a technical side and a business side,” says Martell.

While indicators like a growing department, a campus software contest and good alumni relations aren’t exclusive to UW, Patel and DeWitt each explain, in their own way, that UW’s program stands out. “I really believe there’s something unique here in Wisconsin and in Madison,” Patel says. “It’s a very nurturing, intellectually creative environment.” He particularly notes how the university supports bold new ideas—like those of David DeWitt in the ’70s and ’80s. “Somehow we allow individuals to flourish, and the whole ecosystem comes around to let them flourish.”

DeWitt also credits university leaders such as former dean of the College of Letters and Science Gary Sandefur, who served from 2004 until just last year. “The administrations have treated computer sciences very generously,” he says.

Whatever the reason, groundbreaking research in the field of computer sciences marches on over on West Dayton Street. And while the West Coast is usually thought of as the hotbed of the digital revolution, people like Patel, DeWitt and Naughton are putting Madison on the map and showing that places like UW are not only in the race to harness big data—they’re at the head of the pack.

Grace Edquist is associate/web editor of Madison Magazine. 

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