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August 11, 2014

The 5 coolest EU big data projects

From virtual reality to treating brain trauma.

By Joe Curtis

The EU is more than a tangle of bureaucracy and wildly varying accents, you know. In fact, it funds many of our most exciting technology projects.

While the likes of Google, Apple, and Cisco might be the names most associated with the technologies of tomorrow, the European Commission’s pockets are more than deep enough to throw cash at a variety of future tech schemes.

And it does just that, helping researchers explore ways to improve millions of lives around Europe.

With the sheer amount of data being generated today, big data is inevitably a part of that, and we’ve found five projects the EU is bankrolling to help change our lives in both big and small ways.

Virtual reality

EU researchers have recognised there’s so many billions of bytes of data being generated every day that we have trouble even knowing what to do with it all. That’s where CEEDs comes in.

The acronym stands for the Collective Experience of Empathic Data Systems. Admittedly, that’s not very catchy, but it aims to create a method to not only present data in an attractive way to you, but also to be able to constantly change that presentation to prevent brain overload.

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CEEDs’ hope is to present big data in an interactive environment that will help us use it to generate new ideas more quickly. To do this, they’ve built a virtual reality "experience induction machine" in Barcelona that lets users ‘step inside’ large datasets.

This machine records your heart rate, eye movements and gestures to interpret your reactions to the data, changing the display of the datasets accordingly.

Jonathan Freeman, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London and coordinator of CEEDs, explains: "The system acknowledges when participants are getting fatigued or overloaded with information. And it adapts accordingly. It either simplifies the visualisations so as to reduce the cognitive load, thus keeping the user less stressed and more able to focus. Or it will guide the person to areas of the data representation that are not as heavy in information."

CEEDs says applications for the virtual reality display range from museum exhibitions to inspection of satellite imagery to astronomy, economics and historical research.

Treating people

Using big data in the health sector can actually help save lives: better data analysis can lead to better decision making by identifying trends and correlations previously missed.

One €3m EU project has produced a tool to help people with brain trauma, by collecting data from hundreds of patients who have suffered brain trauma to build software that improves diagnoses and predicts treatment outcomes.

The TBI Care project is working on a tool to allow doctors to enter data from emergency department tests to predict the best treatment for their brain injury.

Dr Mark van Gils, TBI Care’s scientific coordinator, said: "Patients are tested for many different things when they arrive at an emergency department. The care team would look at their awareness and reactivity, and at how much oxygen is in their blood, for example.

"They also explore the potential of more sophisticated measurements – for example testing for proteins that indicate different types of damage to the patient’s brain tissue in their circulation, and using imaging to look for internal bleeding. We want to see which tests give the best indicators of the patient’s likely outcome.

No more traffic jams?

Big data is already being used to manage traffic flows, with data being gathered through sensors, GPS information and social media to plan routes and co-ordinate different modes of transport.

A €3.6m project called Viajeo consisted of 25 companies that, over between 2009 and 2012, aimed to develop an open platform for transport services. That involved the integration of more prosaic traffic management data such as amounts of traffic at fixed locations and information about cars as they travelled along, derived from GPS.

As a result of VIAJEO’s work, transport providers and managers have been able to implement new traffic management services specific to the cities of Athens, Beijing, Sao Paulo and Shanghai.

Cutting energy consumption

Reducing the amount of energy we use is a key priority for most countries, as the world struggles with climate change and global warming. By making more data available to researchers, they can better inform policymakers’ decisions on how to tackle environmental issues.

That’s how we’ve ended up with a project to design software that finds the best places to build wind farms – often derided as noisy eyesores. The main objective of the Sopcawind project is to define what information must be factored in to come up with the answer.

Creating the big data economy

Possibly the most ambitious EU-funded project, the Big Data Public Private Forum has the lofty aim of building an industry around big data. Quite what that involves even the forum isn’t entirely certain, it appears.

However, the project has some impressive partners already, with Unify (formerly Siemens), Atos, as well as Germany’s Open Knowledge Foundation and a string of universities.

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