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Infinite Info

By Patchen Barss

Ayse Bener

Engineering professor Ayse Bener is one of many Ryerson researchers making waves in the big data arena. Photo by James Kachan, Image ’07.

The following article is excerpted from the Summer 2014 Ryerson University Magazine, which is being distributed on campus and to alumni this week. Read the full cover story and more at: www.nxtbook.com/dawson/ryerson/alumni_2014summer.

A shopper at a major retail chain abruptly changes her buying habits, picking up more unscented lotion, vitamin supplements and cotton balls. The chain’s data miners figure out that she is pregnant and start mailing her diaper coupons before she has told her family the news.

A machine hooked up to a premature baby parses thousands of pages of medical readouts, detecting a life-threatening infection a full day before the first visible symptom appears. Netflix and Amazon develop algorithmic-based entertainment recommendations that match or beat those of your closest friends.

The stories add up. Traffic patterns, climate models, personalized medicine regimes, matchmaking websites, smart energy grids. These aspects of everyday life are being transformed by what is sometimes called the “big data revolution.” The “big data” label, though, might be something of a misnomer.

“Big data by itself is not very useful,” says Hossein Rahnama, research director at Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone.

“The information that is present in these data is quite hidden. It’s a needle in a haystack,” agrees Sri Krishnan, interim dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in biomedical signal analysis.

“The real revolution,” says Imogen Coe, dean of the Faculty of Science, “is taking this massive tsunami of data and turning it from big data into smart data.”

Big data, for instance, could comprise millions of receipts showing what people bought in the hours and days before a hurricane came their way. Smart data tells the retailer (Walmart in this case) that the next time a hurricane warning is issued they should not only have mountains of batteries at the ready, but they should also put beer and strawberry Pop-Tarts on sale, because that’s what people will be looking for.

Smart data results from what we do with big data. Transforming big data to smart data draws on a variety of expertise – computer scientists, mathematicians, software engineers and sociologists, as well as experts in the fields where the data will be applied. For example, researchers in Ryerson’s Centre for Digital Humanities are using big data in literature, history and cultural studies, while others are applying it in the study of commercial enterprise.

Ryerson’s cross-university Big Data Initiative (BDI) is focused on advancing new tools and techniques to support analytics and promoting their commercialization through partnerships. Ryerson’s Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity, Centre for Cloud and Context-Aware Computing and the Data Science Laboratory are collaborating with industry partners on big data-based products and services.

In addition, there’s a new certificate in big data and a role as founding academic partner of OneEleven, Canada’s first accelerator for entrepreneurs building big data enterprises.

“Ryerson is engaged in the big data conversation. We are building upon existing strengths and research capacity to become a leader in the space,” says Mohamed Lachemi, provost and vice president academic.

“We approach big data from an interdisciplinary perspective because the impacts of it are felt at every level. By creating platforms that bring together researchers and partners from across all disciplines, we can address the challenges in more effective ways.”

Researchers in math, science, engineering, business and arts are studying big data, turning it into smart data in ways that affect business, public policy and everyday life. Follow the links below to read some of their stories:

Data is the New Oil:   Hossein Rahnama
The Clothing Retailer and the Astronaut: Ayse Bener
I’m in the Mood for Subscribing: Pawel Pralat
My Heart Belongs to Data: Sri Krishnan
Big Privacy: Imogen Coe

The Summer 2014 issue of Ryerson University Magazine is being mailed to alumni and is also available online.

Ryerson University Magazine is published twice a year and an e-newsletter is distributed to alumni four times annually. If you're a Ryerson graduate but don't receive the magazine or @lumni enewsletter, go to www.ryerson.ca/alumni/stay-in-touch/updateinfo/index.html to update your contact information, or call 1-866-428-8881.

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