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Acadia’s Data Centre For Rural Issues

Daniel Silver held up a printout of about 15 possible names, bearing varying combinations that featured such words as “Acadia”, “Data”, “Analytics” and “Institute.”

Silver, the Director of the Jodrey School of Computer Science at Acadia University, and several colleagues are at work this summer putting together plans for a data analytics institute. As the list shows, they have yet to agree on such minutiae as the name, but they already know what will separate this from other academic Big Data bodies in the region.

“Our data institute will have a rural and agricultural focus,” said Silver in an interview at the university in Wolfville, N.S., last week.  “As well as agriculture and wine, we’ll do work in the environment, green power, tidal power, even tourism.”

The developments at Acadia are yet another example of the academic and business communities in Atlantic Canada developing what Geoff Flood, CEO of T4G, has called a Centre for Excellence in Big Data. While dozens of startups are developing businesses in which they analyze masses of data, the region’s universities are moving quickly to develop centres that work with industry and government on data analytics. Dalhousie University in Halifax has also said it will establish its Institute for Big Data Analytics.

What’s special about the Acadia facility is it will target economic and environmental activity in rural areas, which means one of the most powerful business tools to come along recently (data analytics) will be used to help the areas that are struggling the most economically (rural areas).

The new facility at Acadia will work within the Acadia Centre for Rural Innovation, along with the Atlantic Wine Institute and other outfits working with such segments as agri-food, tidal power and environmental sciences.

Using data sciences to improve the production and sales of wine is already gaining momentum in the U.S. Addressing the science of wine production, scientists analyze what colour, taste and smell pleases consumers, and then study what soil content, atmosphere, fertilizers, water and grape species best produce those characteristics. Then they look at how consumers buy the wine – online, at the vineyard, in stores – and work to target the highest-volume sales channel.

“We’re getting wineries coming to us more and more to get these inputs on wine,” said Leigh Huestis of the university’s Office of Industry and Community Engagement, part of the Division of Research and Graduate Studies. “The key is to get them coming in earlier, not after the wine is made.”

She said analytics programs in Ontario have developed predictive weather models to accurately predict when severe cold weather is coming. They allow farmers to take temporary measures that protect grapes from the cold, and a similar system in the Maritimes would help the region’s wine industry.

The people working on data institute include academics from computer science, environmental engineering, mathematics and statistics, business, and agricultural programs, as well as businesses and farmers, industry associations and government. The applications may not be endless, but they’re certainly varied. In agriculture, the team is considering collecting data on the use of pesticides – what temperatures, humidity, time of day or the season are most effective in ridding crops of pests. If farmers can spray just at these optimum times and conditions, they can concentrate their efforts and use less pesticide, saving money and helping the environment.

In tidal power, sea-bed sensors can tell scientists how fish respond to underwater turbines, helping to preserve marine environments.