Report unveils UT’s plans for major data center in Houston

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The University of Texas System believed a data institute in Houston could have transformed health care delivery, the energy industry and education systems.

An advisory group tasked with determining how to best use 300-plus acres near the Texas Medical Center envisioned partnerships with major companies, top universities and national laboratories on the property, according to a 76-page report obtained by the Houston Chronicle through an open records request.

“Winners and losers in the years ahead will be determined by who has the greatest ability to collect, analyze and activate that data,” the report read. “If Houston wants to remain a global leader in energy and healthcare, it needs to be a leader in Data Science — and it needs its primary Data Science resource to be located in the city.”

Chancellor William McRaven called off development on the $215 million Houston property earlier this month after opposition mounted from regents and lawmakers, who objected to the process by which UT obtained the land and the lack of clarity it provided on its plans.

McRaven said then that the advisory group had recommended a data center that would focus on energy, education and health. The report is the first deep public look into UT’s hopes for the property, which the system says it now hopes to sell.

UT’s group says that a data center would have anchored the land. Engineers, researchers, scientists, doctors and students would have worked on-site alongside commercial facilities and residential areas, UT said.

Energy and health, the report said, are two of the world’s most crucial industries, and better data and deeper analysis could lead to significant improvements, including more efficient and sustainable energy distribution and smarter health care delivery.

Better data could personalize education systems to students, the report said. Other future topics could include transportation or labor data.

Group members did not identify an immediate source of funding for the project.

They wrote that the institute should sidestep a traditional funding model of donations, city and state grants and sponsoring institutions in favor of a broader request for expressions of interest from international universities, government agencies and industry.

The report included an endorsement from Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet.

“Big Data is the oil wealth of the 21st Century. No company or society can move forward without it,” he said, according to the report. “Texas needs to invest in Big Data and I am excited that The University of Texas System is leading the way. I can think of no better place to start this initiative than Houston.”

Houston would be a prime spot for the campus because of its large industrial base and diverse population, the report said. UT institutions host nearly 50,000 students, faculty, staff and medical residents in Houston and oversee more than 4 million patient visits annually.

In the report, UT acknowledged that it would take effort to get the city of Houston on board with its plans. It recommended “socialization” with investors, partners and stakeholders. “Having a host city championing an effort like the Institute…enhances the chances of success.”

Opposition in Houston was clear from the moment McRaven announced the purchase in November 2015. The University of Houston called the deal an obstacle to its growth, and lawmakers were upset because they hadn’t been consulted in advance. McRaven was forced to defend the purchase as an investment in UT’s future and a boon for the city and state.

But there was no clear vision as to what UT was planning. The advisory group, formed about a year ago, never publicly released a report that McRaven asked to see by the end of 2016.

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