A big day for big data at Dalhousie

- July 18, 2013

Computer science professor Stan Matwin directs big data research  (Danny Abriel photo).
Computer science professor Stan Matwin directs big data research (Danny Abriel photo).

A big job doesn’t scare computer science professor Stan Matwin away. In fact, you could say the Canada Research Chair in Visual Text Analytics lives by the words “the bigger, the better.”

Dr. Matwin studies big data, which is a term used to describe very large sets of data points that need to be processed quickly. Industries and services across many sectors collect data every day: retailers collect data on what items were purchased at the check out; scientists collect data on ocean temperatures from sensors all over the globe; even police are collecting time and location data on calls they receive.

But that’s a lot of data. So, how can it be used to its full potential?

Enter the Institute for Big Data Analytics. It’s the first academic research institute in Canada committed to expanding knowledge and expertise in big data. Matwin is leading the charge as the institute’s director.

“The institute will help people and companies who have questions their data can answer, but they’re not sure how to find those answers,” explains Dr. Matwin. “The key is to find ways that can uncover hidden patterns and intelligence so they can turn their data into something that makes sense and not only addresses challenges but identifies opportunities as well.”

With a background in developing systems and algorithms that uncover those patterns in data, Dr. Matwin is ready to lead a team of researchers to find even more answers.

"I’ve built software programs that predict who in the emergency room will need hospitalization, that can recognize oil spills, that know how to categorize medical articles and can catch emerging trends in a political campaign or public opinion,” says Dr. Matwin.

Now, Dr. Matwin’s working with a company in Montreal who wants to develop an entertainment app based on data collected from social media that can identify someone’s musical taste. Many more research agreements are currently being worked out.

Other institute researchers, like Faculty of Computer Science professor Evangelos Milios, are busy, too. Dr. Milios is taking the lead on a visual and text analytics project with The Boeing Company. That work is all about finding new ways to display, mine and interpret the massive amount of data that Boeing collects from each aircraft so aircraft maintenance and safety can be improved. (To read more on the research agreement with Dal and Boeing, check out the Media Centre (2011).

Computer Science students will also have a chance to roll up their sleeves and dig in.

“Students will be working on cutting-edge big data research, but they’ll also have a unique opportunity to work on industry-relevant problems. They may even make connections that can help them land internships,” says Dr. Matwin.

Celebrating a milestone

The Institute for Big Data Analytics was officially launched on Thursday during the Canadian Visual Analytics Summer School, hosted by Dal’s Faculty of Computer Science. The atrium of the Goldberg Computer Science building was buzzing with students, faculty, visiting academics, industry partners and government representatives.

Among them was Graham Steele, minister for Economic and Rural Development and Tourism. The province has given the Institute $50,000 for outreach to local start-ups and small and medium-sized companies.

“With training and help from Dalhousie’s new Institute for Big Data Analytics, small businesses will be able to understand how they can analyze data to help them grow and compete,” said Minister Steele. “We’re pleased to support the institute in its work with businesses in communities throughout Nova Scotia.”

Martha Crago, vice-president research at Dalhousie, explained how the institute is an example of important university-industry partnership — a key to continued innovation.

“Our world-class researchers are constantly working towards innovative solutions to advance knowledge and increase our capacity to manage challenges across many sectors,” said Dr. Crago. “That innovation is uniquely amplified when we collaborate with our industry partners, like the ones here today.”

When David Kasik, the senior technical fellow with Boeing, took to the podium, he touched on the institute’s impact on students.

“The most important thing is the students and the experience they’ll gain from research they’ll get to do through this institute,” said Kasik.

“I think big data is here today, it will be here tomorrow, and after that I think it will morph into something quite different and it’s even hard to say now what that might be,” said Dr. Matwin.


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