“The DTIC, called to become an international benchmark provider in knowledge extraction from large data volumes”

“The DTIC, called to become an international benchmark provider in knowledge extraction from large data volumes”

Directed by Xavier Binefa, it has just been granted a “Maria de Maeztu” distinction of excellence for the project carried out by Xavier Serra and Aurelio Ruiz, its respective scientific and technical directors.



D'esquerra a dreta: Aurelio Ruiz, Xavier Serra i Xavier Binefa

The Department of Information and Communication Technologies (DTIC) at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) has just been granted a “Maria de Maeztu” distinction of excellence by the Spanish State.

The Department directed by Xavier Binefa will receive 500,000 euros per year over the next four years to carry out the project of which Xavier Serra and Aurelio Ruiz are the scientific and technical director, respectively.

- What does it mean to have been accredited by the Spanish government?

It is the first Engineering department in the State to have been granted this distinction, which recognizes the capacity to generate cutting-edge research worldwide in each field of knowledge. Currently there are ten “Maria de Maeztu”-accredited centres in Spain, of which only three are university departments, two at UPF, the departments of Information and Communication Technologies (DTIC) and Experimental and Health Sciences (CEXS). The other is the Department of Economics at Carlos III University.

ICT research is at the heart of the revolution surrounding data science because it provides methodologies and technologies used in a large number of areas of research and applications. At the DTIC we have established a significant number of groups working around data-based research and associated knowledge extraction and this recognition proves its leadership statewide. 

ICT research is the heart of the revolution surrounding data science

- What will the roadmap be from now?

With the financial support provided by this accreditation we will develop a series of actions to improve and consolidate the research we are conducting about knowledge extraction methods that use large collections of data and also to enhance the impact of this research. We will improve the calculation infrastructure available to the department’s research groups. We will recruit new PhD students and post-doctoral researchers to conduct these searches and we will organize training and outreach activities that make our research known. We also want to promote technology transfer so that companies can learn about and use the results of our research.

- Has the growth of the Department since its creation been a decisive factor in gaining the accreditation?

Rather than actual growth it is how it has grown that has been decisive. Since it was created, at the DTIC we have looked to internationally renowned researchers with leadership skills and and a commitment to quality teaching. Growth has been slow. Now we are reaping the benefits sown by the founders of the department in the early 2000s. The ICREA programme has also been a good programme for us and has helped us in the department to have a lot of people that we could not have had with the mechanisms allowed by law on the civil service let alone the law on public service employees.

- What are the strengths, differentiating features and special characteristics of this university department?

Great, highly relevant results are achieved through a combination of computer technology in important areas of application. Its composition, involving research groups with varying expertise, is quite unusual in Spain, as well as the large proportion of ICREA researchers. The resulting potential for interdisciplinary research is one of the biggest assets of the department, which has received international recognition through many awards including ten grants by the European Research Council (ERC) obtained by individual researchers.

Elite research in the world of technology is today highly competitive and global, and in addition to widely cited relevant publications, projects must have a significant impact on society and industry.

- Regarding human capital, how many researchers and research groups are there? What areas of knowledge does the department encompass?

The DTIC consists of twenty-nine lecturers and thirteen ICREA research professors from twenty-five research groups that include a community of around 300 people. The research of the DTIC covers four main areas: smart and cognitive systems, audiovisual technologies, networks and communications, and computational biology and biomedical systems, in addition to the Center for Brain and Cognition.

At the DTIC we have looked to internationally renowned researchers with leadership skills and and a commitment to quality teaching.

- And in terms of mobility and international relations?

The DTIC is a highly international department in all its activities. As an example, over 60% of (master’s and Ph.D.) graduate students are foreign. The DTIC is also the leader as regards Spanish participation in European projects (in the 7th Framework Programme of the European Union it represented more than 5% of all funds obtained by Spanish universities), especially in programmes of the European Research Council (ERC).

This internationalization leads to partnerships and international mobility opportunities for our students and staff with the most important international institutions. The “Maria de Maeztu” distinction and the associated research project will be an excellent opportunity to increase the international visibility and recognition of the DTIC in particular and UPF in general.

- What milestones have been achieved and what challenges, novelties and aspirations still remain in innovation and knowledge transfer?

In the world of ICT, knowledge transfer and innovation take place not only from the university to enterprise. The technology-associated business world is highly innovative, and the most important milestone has been the ability to establish solid relations with major companies worldwide. A two-way transfer of knowledge is established, both in research and in training. The recent European industrial PhD programme CardioFunXion with Philips Research is a clear example. This link with the business sector is critical to increase the success of activities to foster entrepreneurship.

The DTIC has given rise to five of the UPF-driven spin-offs (BMAT, Reactable, LogIm, Eodyne and VoctroLabs), but also a growing number of start-ups. The DTIC also carries out actions to provide the social and business environment with advanced open access tools and services, such as Freesound, the collaborative sounds network currently with more than 4 million users worldwide. Finally, one of the DTIC’s strengths is its ability to promote outreach activities to society in general.

The “Maria de Maeztu”-associated project will greatly contribute to strengthening these actions on issues related with extracting knowledge from large data volumes, making the DTIC a benchmark international provider in these areas.

L’acreditació “María de Maeztu” i el projecte de recerca associat seran una excel•lent oportunitat per incrementar la visibilitat i el prestigi internacional del DTIC.

- In an environment of continuously growing technology, what new doctoral programmes are being created? Towards what lines of research?

The DTIC’s PhD, an innovative programme that encompasses a wide range of topics in the field of ICT, is representative of the interdisciplinary reality of the most advanced research in this field. As an example, in the ANECA assessment of the PhD programme, it scored the highest mark (100) in the category “quality of scientific results generated by theses”.

Several PhD students have been awarded international prizes for the quality of their doctoral research, such as the Best European Young Researcher 2013, BBVA International Competition on Big Data 2013, the CISCO Security Grand Challenge 2014 or the Big Date Talent Award 2015. In the future, one fundamental aspect will be to reinforce the fertilization between the different disciplines, and around the “María de Maeztu” project, in two priority areas: obtaining and structuring data, and data modelling and interpretation.

El programa de doctorat, a l’avaluació ANECA va obtenir la puntuació màxima (100) per la qualitat dels resultats científics generats per les tesis doctorals.

-Can you hint at the new available training planned based on Data Science?

At present, the Department offers a master’s degree that provides training in Big Data. We want to put in place immediately a new four-year degree to train “data scientists”, engineers who are able to structure immense volumes of heterogeneous and distributed data (from the web, from the social networks, sensor networks in addition to audio, video and image) with the aim of processing them to extract relevant information for the decision-making process using mathematical techniques based on statistics and artificial intelligence.

We believe that the interdisciplinary capacity of the department and the funding obtained will allow the degree to respond technologically to cross-cutting challenges such as: personalized medicine, the filtering and personalized recommendation of information of all kinds, the evaluation of the functioning of services to citizens and the best use of the structures of a city.  A degree that aspires to a society that is not only transparent but in which data that are anonymous, public and readable by everyone will act as a cornerstone for the development of the new knowledge-based economy.