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Key role in future Norwegian ICT initiatives:

Big-data research spurs industrial development

One of the world’s largest specialist groups within the field of big-data analytics is being assembled in Norway. The centre for Information Access Disruptions (iAD), with its head office in Tromsø, is at the core of this activity.

It is a great credit to Norwegian IT research that Microsoft is moving 50 positions from the US to Norway. The draw is the iAD and its extensive expertise in big data – currently one of the hottest areas of research.

Facing never-ending demands

The amount of data being produced around the world is increasing at an explosive rate. Research on how to accommodate and retrieve information from such vast amounts of data is in high demand.

“We have seen that many groups are jockeying for a position in this area. With significant help from the Research Council of Norway, we have succeeded in building up a unique pool of expertise in Norway over the past seven years. This is one of the main reasons why Microsoft has decided to invest here,” states Bjørn Olstad, Centre Director of the iAD and CTO of Microsoft Development Center Norway (MDCN).

Photo: Håvard Simonsen Research at the iAD Centre for Research-based Innovation has garnered international attention and led Microsoft to move jobs to Norway. From left: Professor Dag Johansen, Centre Director Bjørn Olstad, Professor Pål Halvorsen and Research Programme Manager Odd Petter Slyngstad. (Photo: Håvard Simonsen)

The iAD is one of 21 centres granted status as a Centre for Research-based Innovation (SFI) by the Research Council of Norway. The MDCN is the host institution, and partners comprise the University of Tromsø (UiT), University of Oslo (UiO), Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim and BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo. The centre’s research focuses on the next generation of search engines and how to retrieve user-friendly information from large and complex sets of data.

A cluster in Tromsø

In the short term, fifty positions are to be moved from Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington to Norway. Thirty of these will be relocated to UiO, where the iAD is working towards defining and developing new user experiences within commercial searches. The remaining 20 will be situated in Tromsø where activity will focus on accessing and analysing large amounts of data.

In the longer term, Microsoft would like to add 20 more employees to the Tromsø office in addition to the 30 already working there, and the 20 new positions that are soon being relocated from Redmond, Washington. Combined with personnel working in this area at UiT, this will bring the total size of the research community in Tromsø up to close to 100 people.

“There has been a deliberate effort to organise the division of labour according to a cluster model. Such a large group has the potential to come up with many exciting developments together that could pave the way for other activities to come,” says Dr Olstad.

A professor with clout

One of the factors behind Norway’s head start within big data is a man named Dag Johansen. An IT Professor at UiT, Dr Johansen began researching systems for big data in close collaboration with Cornell University in New York as early as in 1993. Since then, his projects have resulted in over a hundred Master’s and Ph.D. graduates who are working in Norwegian and international enterprises today. Dr Johansen points out that the Research Council played a pivotal role in making this possible.

Photo: Sverre Chr. Jarild “Norway is fully able to attract major international research and industrial stakeholders when we invest in large-scale, targeted initiatives,” Anne Kjersti Fahlvik states. (Photo: Sverre Chr. Jarild) “We have been in constant competition with big research groups in the US with enormous resources at their disposal. The playing field has not been level, but long-term funding from the Research Council kept our research activity going. As a result of that support, we are today at the cutting-edge and attractive partners to international industrial players.

“In 2007, when the iAD was granted status as a Centre for Research-based Innovation (SFI), we gained some extra muscle that allowed us to expand our activities. The synergy effects gained through our cooperation with Microsoft and other top-notch national research groups have also been key factors,” Dr Johansen emphasises.

Can attract major stakeholders

“This is a prime example of a successful union between research and industry,” says Anne Kjersti Fahlvik, Executive Director of the Division for Innovation of the Research Council.

“This Centre for Research-based Innovation has helped to build a dynamic research environment that truly fulfils the needs of industry. This is the reason why Microsoft has chosen Norway for its research activities in this area. It shows that Norway is fully able to attract major international research and industrial stakeholders when we invest in large-scale, targeted initiatives,” she states.

Ms Fahlvik stresses the potential for big data to become a field crucial to future Norwegian ICT initatives. “Over the past year, the Research Council has been working on a knowledge base for future ICT research. Big data has emerged as an extremely interesting subject in this process,” Anne Kjersti Fahlvik concludes.

Written by:
Nils Ragnar Løvhaug/Karin Totland. Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann
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