First “Big Data” graduate program in Canada to train new breed of scientists
A new applied masters program at Simon Fraser University aims to teach ICT graduates the analytical know-how for tackling today’s “Big Data” challenges.
Posted by GRAND NCE, February 19, 2014

Visualization of the Internet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Visual map of the Internet. Wikimedia Commons

(VANCOUVER) The glut of data worldwide has created one of the newest but fastest-growing job markets in Canada. Data scientists are in short supply these days because of a growing number of businesses and other organizations grappling with “Big Data.”

Part analysis, part creativity, data science applies computational analysis and visualization (or “visual analytics”) to glean useful insights from some of the biggest datasets out there. These insights inform ways of addressing particular problems or business challenges. Examples include the mining of social media data to monitor the adverse effects of certain medications, or pinpointing fraud across multiple databases and massive volumes of data.

The enormous value that this kind of analysis can bring to businesses and government puts data experts in a position to influence decisions at the highest level. Yet as an emerging scientific field in its own right, data science has been short on professional training – until now.

For the first time in Canada, a new masters program at Simon Fraser University will allow students to launch a professional career in data science and visual analytics. Starting in Fall 2014, the two-year program will train students in skills needed to solve data-related problems. The program targets prospective students with backgrounds in computer programming and technology looking to hone their skillsets and connect with industry.

Given both industry demand and Canada’s leadership in Big Data research, SFU computing science professor and GRAND researcher Dr. Fred Popowich says the timing of the program launch is perfect.

“If you take a look now across the country, there are a lot of people already doing research in this area. So I think it’s just an ideal opportunity for students to not only get involved with the [scientific] research in this area, but to get involved in applied research as well.”

As program faculty members, Dr. Popowich and colleague Dr. Anoop Sarkar will incorporate their research on Natural Language Processing into a course module. This area applies computation analysis to natural languages such as English or Chinese from online data sources on the web and social media. Other core courses have a similarly technical slant covering such topics as data mining, machine learning, cloud computing, Big Data algorithms, and bioinformatics.

“These courses are really sitting at the foundations of the kinds of things that people are dealing with now,” explained Dr. Popowich. “It’s pushing the boundaries in terms of dealing with large volumes of data, data streams, massive datasets. [They are] dealing with the unstructured information whether it be in Twitter feeds or traditional text in email messages and websites.”

Another big draw for students will be the program’s internships, which are backed by strong industry collaboration with ties to GRAND and a dozen companies in Canada and in the U.S., including Simba Technologies, IBM, and SAP.

“This offers a natural way to link together research that is going on in the field with company needs, and to get the graduate students involved with that,” said Dr. Popowich. “Given there’s such a shortage of people, we’re providing a way for people to get tied into the research aspect through existing companies involved with GRAND, or even getting new companies.” 

Big Data a GRAND Challenge

SFU professor Dr. Alexandra Fedorova is another GRAND researcher joining the new program’s faculty. She is developing revolutionary software to better manage the energy consumption of hardware – work awarded an NSERC Strategic Project grant in 2013. Through her course “Big Data Systems,” graduate students will be introduced to this expanding area of data systems research.

“The research that we do is about making computer systems more energy efficient – from data centres to mobile devices,” said Dr. Fedorova. “A lot of data centres are being built in Canada because of favorable privacy laws. By making these data centres more energy efficient, we’re making ourselves more competitive.”

Dr. Fedorova co-leads GRAND’s PLATFORM2 project examining the use of customized software and hardware to optimize computer performance for specific application areas such as healthcare. PLATFORM2 is part of GRAND’s new “Data” Challenge – one of seven “GRAND Challenges” behind a newly restructured research program for the Network’s second phase starting in 2014. The Challenges cluster projects around broad issues or problems related to digital media that are of importance to Canada.

Healthcare is another such Challenge. With Canada’s population aging and fewer doctors getting trained, researchers are looking for technological solutions to relieve  pressure on the system.

“By finding ways to use smartphones to substitute some of the human care, we’re going to ease the burden on the healthcare system,” explained Dr. Fedorova. “But in order to do this we need to design smartphone software that is more energy efficient. Because if the smartphone is used for the 24-7 monitoring of elderly patients, for example, they need to be always on, and so the battery becomes an issue.”

Through her GRAND connection with University of Alberta researcher Dr. Eleni Stroulia, Dr. Fedorova has been able to close the gap between her research and its end users.

“I don’t have connections with hospitals, but by collaborating with some of the researchers in the GRAND network, we’ve been able to establish those connections, and better understand the needs of patients and medical practitioners.”

Dr. Popowich sees this bridge between researchers and end users to be crucial for the future of Big Data research.

“Moving forward, the way that I see this [research] growing is by having more engagement with the receptor community. That is a great way to tie in the core computing science research with other perspectives such as health and social science.”

VIVA Las Data

As well as getting exposure to leading Big Data research, data scientists in training will also benefit from SFU’s strong ties to Canada's growing network of visual analytics researchers.

The Vancouver Institute for Visual Analytics (VIVA), headed by Dr. Popowich, is a key hub in this network. VIVA was established in 2010 through a $1.3 million grant from Boeing Company given to SFU and University of British Columbia to jointly to study visual analytics. VIVA researchers are working on a range of applications in sectors such as healthcare, aviation, insurance and oceanography.

In November 2013, the institute received a half-million dollars from Western Economic Diversification to fund new equipment and software. IBM also made an in-kind contribution of its leading analytics software applications, valued at $800,000, which will enhance researchers' visualization and analysis of Big Data. Other universities in Western Canada that are part of the Canadian Network for Visual Analytics (CANVAC) will also have access to the lab’s new resources.

“It’s providing us with the infrastructure with a range of useful software at secure facilities at UBC and SFU, and providing ways for companies to interact with the data,” said Dr. Popowich. “It will allow us to expand the resources that we are able to offer to students, companies, and to faculty members involved in specific projects.” 

At the international level, Dr. Popowich has also been part of a GRAND-led initiative called BRAVA (Brazilian Visual Analytics). BRAVA was established in 2012 to stimulate collaboration between Canadian and Brazilian researchers through a partnership between GRAND, Boeing, Mitacs, with support by Brazil’s Federal University of São Carlos. Since that time, research centers and universities from around the world have participated in BRAVA collaborations and student exchanges. BRAVA’s 2013 workshop drew over 50 researchers and industry representatives from Canada, Brazil, U.S.A., the Netherlands, Singapore and the UK.

Through GRAND, Dr. Popowich and his colleagues at SFU will also continue to work with visualization groups in Canada, such as Dalhousie University’s Social Media Lab and the Centre for Innovation in Information Visualization and Data-Driven Design (CIVDDD) – a major data-centred research project led by York University in partnership with OCAD University and the University of Toronto. These GRAND-supported collaborations bring together the best from many disciplines – including artists, designers, engineers, and scientists – to develop new techniques for data discovery, design, analytics and visualization. For Dr. Popowich, who first studied cognitive science before focusing on computing, this mixing of expertise and perspectives is GRAND’s greatest asset.

“Although I’m a computer science prof, I’m very much interested in interdisciplinary collaboration, and that is the great opportunity inside GRAND. [We need to] take it forward so that companies can see the benefit of this interdisciplinary interaction.”




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