Toward a data-driven European economy

15/08/2016 17:00 / Author: Jaap van Sandijk
Mobilising big data to improve services: more and more European companies are becoming adept at it. Scientific director of the Data Science Center Eindhoven Prof. Wil van der Aalst outlines the rapid developments toward a data-driven European economy: 'Those organisations not utilising big data will cease to exist.'

European Data Forum

During the European Data Forum held last 29-30 June in Eindhoven's iconic Evoluon building, companies and organisations discussed how they use big data to improve their services. The Forum's main organiser was the Eindhoven Data Science Center, which is affiliated with Eindhoven's University of Technology. Scientific director of the Data Science Center and professor of Information Systems at TU/e Professor Wil van der Aalst looks back on a successful event: ‘Attendance was huge and the presentations were inspiring.' 

Boundaries of processing power

One of the other speakers at the conference was Philips’ CEO Frans van Houten. Van der Aalst explains: ‘He described the transformation of his company from one selling appliances to a data operation in the field of health care. Philips is placing many types of equipment on the market which are linked to the internet. An innovative example is the development of a toothbrush with sensors which are able to detect cancer. Anders Arpteg of the music streaming service Spotify reported how his company analyses the listening behaviour of hundreds of millions of users, pushing the boundaries of processing power. And Jacob van den Borne of Van den Borne Precision explained how data are being utilised in the growing of potatoes and in warding off diseases.’ 

New technologies

As is evident from the highlights listed by van der Aalst, big data are being mobilised across the entire economic spectrum. ‘What you see is that companies are picking up and applying the technology ever faster in a wide range of areas. Take for instance a new technology such as process mining, aimed at improving company processes by using big data. At Siemens in Germany, over two thousand staff are regular users of process mining software to analyse bottlenecks within the company. Big data are becoming so important that organisations not using it will cease to exist.’ 

Data Science Bachelor

Van der Aalst is an expert on data science and Europe’s most cited computer scientist. At his Data Science Center in Eindhoven, 400 affiliated scientists are busy launching data science initiatives within the University of Technology. Together with Tilburg University, Eindhoven University of Technology offers a Joint Bachelor’s programme in Data Science. There are two Master’s programmes in Data Science, which started last year. Van der Aalst’s specialty is process mining, and the Data Science Center is the world leader in this area.

Process mining

‘Process mining can be applied anywhere,’ according to van der Aalst. Take baggage handling at airports, for instance. By following all the suitcases, a huge amount of data can be created. Analysing data and identifying bottlenecks can help improve the baggage handling system. In a similar way, process mining can be used to reduce waiting times at hospitals. Process mining will develop into a basic technology in a short space of time. Over the past five years, more than 20 commercial process mining tools have appeared on the market which are based on our ideas.’ Statistics Netherlands, too, has worked with certain parts of the process mining technology developed in Eindhoven, applying them in the framework of a large-scale Lean Six Sigma programme. Analysis of information obtained from internal statistics production processes provides the staff involved with unexpected insights into bottlenecks and puts them on track for efficiency improvement. As to what extent process mining will increase in importance for Statistics Netherlands will depend on the bureau’s development, according to van der Aalst. ‘Statistics Netherlands is known primarily as a supplier of global, recurrently aggregated statistical data. Process mining becomes relevant when you start analysing the behaviour of people or organisations in a more intricate, detailed manner.’

Global competition

In view of the rapid developments in big data and its applications, the question arises whether statistics producers and universities are sufficiently prepared to contribute to any solutions for economic and social issues of the 21st century. ‘They are not’ is van der Aalst’s resolute answer. ‘This is due to the fact that not enough is being invested in the key disciplines of data science: research on databases, statistics, data mining, machine learning and visualisation. There is a relatively fair amount of funding for application areas, which is fine in itself, but we should not lose sight of research on data science as such. There is global competition in this area. Action is needed if we are to play a major role. Otherwise, a great deal of research will be done by the US, where funding is better organised, both from the government and in the corporate world. An example is Google, which was created as the result of a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both PhD researchers at Stanford University.’

Striking lack

One of the recurring themes in data science is the striking lack of specialists and the fight for these talents. ‘Fortunately, we are seeing a spectacular rise in the number of computer science and mathematics students, both nationwide and more specifically here in Eindhoven. Young people understand the importance of these subject areas, and this is positive trend.’ Van der Aalst is also closely involved in the Dutch National Research Agenda (Nationale Wetenschapsagenda), a source of inspiration for those interested in science, and notes an increasing awareness among the general public as well of the importance of big data: ‘They realise that big data is currently a development of major importance. It is my sincere hope that this attention will garner higher investments in the key disciplines of data science.’

European Data Forum

During the European Data Forum held last 29-30 June in Eindhoven's iconic Evoluon building, companies and organisations discussed how they use big data to improve their services. The Forum's main organiser was the Eindhoven Data Science Center, which is affiliated with Eindhoven's University of Technology. Scientific director of the Data Science Center and professor of Information Systems at TU/e Professor Wil van der Aalst looks back on a successful event: ‘Attendance was huge and the presentations were inspiring.'

Boundaries of processing power

One of the other speakers at the conference was Philips’ CEO Frans van Houten. Van der Aalst explains: ‘He described the transformation of his company from one selling appliances to a data operation in the field of health care. Philips is placing many types of equipment on the market which are linked to the internet. An innovative example is the development of a toothbrush with sensors which are able to detect cancer. Anders Arpteg of the music streaming service Spotify reported how his company analyses the listening behaviour of hundreds of millions of users, pushing the boundaries of processing power. And Jacob van den Borne of Van den Borne Precision explained how data are being utilised in the growing of potatoes and in warding off diseases.’

New technologies

As is evident from the highlights listed by van der Aalst, big data are being mobilised across the entire economic spectrum. ‘What you see is that companies are picking up and applying the technology ever faster in a wide range of areas. Take for instance a new technology such as process mining, aimed at improving company processes by using big data. At Siemens in Germany, over two thousand staff are regular users of process mining software to analyse bottlenecks within the company. Big data are becoming so important that organisations not using it will cease to exist.’

Data Science Bachelor

Van der Aalst is an expert on data science and Europe’s most cited computer scientist. At his Data Science Center in Eindhoven, 400 affiliated scientists are busy launching data science initiatives within the University of Technology. Together with Tilburg University, Eindhoven University of Technology offers a Joint Bachelor’s programme in Data Science. There are two Master’s programmes in Data Science, which started last year. Van der Aalst’s specialty is process mining, and the Data Science Center is the world leader in this area.

Process mining

‘Process mining can be applied anywhere,’ according to van der Aalst. Take baggage handling at airports, for instance. By following all the suitcases, a huge amount of data can be created. Analysing data and identifying bottlenecks can help improve the baggage handling system. In a similar way, process mining can be used to reduce waiting times at hospitals. Process mining will develop into a basic technology in a short space of time. Over the past five years, more than 20 commercial process mining tools have appeared on the market which are based on our ideas.’ Statistics Netherlands, too, has worked with certain parts of the process mining technology developed in Eindhoven, applying them in the framework of a large-scale Lean Six Sigma programme. Analysis of information obtained from internal statistics production processes provides the staff involved with unexpected insights into bottlenecks and puts them on track for efficiency improvement. As to what extent process mining will increase in importance for Statistics Netherlands will depend on the bureau’s development, according to van der Aalst. ‘Statistics Netherlands is known primarily as a supplier of global, recurrently aggregated statistical data. Process mining becomes relevant when you start analysing the behaviour of people or organisations in a more intricate, detailed manner.’

Global competition

In view of the rapid developments in big data and its applications, the question arises whether statistics producers and universities are sufficiently prepared to contribute to any solutions for economic and social issues of the 21st century. ‘They are not’ is van der Aalst’s resolute answer. ‘This is due to the fact that not enough is being invested in the key disciplines of data science: research on databases, statistics, data mining, machine learning and visualisation. There is a relatively fair amount of funding for application areas, which is fine in itself, but we should not lose sight of research on data science as such. There is global competition in this area. Action is needed if we are to play a major role. Otherwise, a great deal of research will be done by the US, where funding is better organised, both from the government and in the corporate world. An example is Google, which was created as the result of a research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both PhD researchers at Stanford University.’

Striking lack

One of the recurring themes in data science is the striking lack of specialists and the fight for these talents. ‘Fortunately, we are seeing a spectacular rise in the number of computer science and mathematics students, both nationwide and more specifically here in Eindhoven. Young people understand the importance of these subject areas, and this is positive trend.’ Van der Aalst is also closely involved in the Dutch National Research Agenda (Nationale Wetenschapsagenda), a source of inspiration for those interested in science, and notes an increasing awareness among the general public as well of the importance of big data: ‘They realise that big data is currently a development of major importance. It is my sincere hope that this attention will garner higher investments in the key disciplines of data science.’

Wil van der Aalst Curriculum Vitae

Prof. Dr. Ir. Wil van der Aalst is a full professor of Information Systems at Eindhoven University of Technology and the scientific director of the Eindhoven Data Science Center. Since 2003, van der Aalst has held a part-time position at Queensland University of Technology. His special interests include workflow management, process mining, business process management and simulation. Van der Aalst has written over 600 articles and various influential books. His ideas have had a great impact on standardisation processes and commercial software products.

Prof. Dr. Ir. Wil van der Aalst is a full professor of Information Systems at Eindhoven University of Technology and the scientific director of the Eindhoven Data Science Center. Since 2003, van der Aalst has held a part-time position at Queensland University of Technology. His special interests include workflow management, process mining, business process management and simulation. Van der Aalst has written over 600 articles and various influential books. His ideas have had a great impact on standardisation processes and commercial software products.