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BigData A Big Deal

Larry Sampson, executive director of the New Brunswick Information Technology Council, is already looking forward to the next Big Data Congress, which he believes will shine a light on the data analytics projects actively being undertaken in Atlantic Canada.

The second annual congress, which wrapped up in Saint John on Wednesday, highlighted how government, large organizations and established businesses can employ data analytics to improve efficiency and performance. It’s the natural follow to the first such event held a year ago, which basically explained what big data is.

Big data or data analytics is the use of data produced online to revolutionize business or administrative processes. The idea is that by analyzing millions or billions of points of data, organizations can be more efficient, can increase their sales and overall improve performance.

The congress this year included several sessions Monday in which established businesses and government officials were taught how they could employ the practice. And now Sampson wants to see what they do to put what they’ve learned into practice.

“A year from now, we’ll be tracking what organizations in the region have done, or should I say are doing, with big data,” said Sampson, whose organization sponsored the congress, along with the tech company T4G.

The congress this year attracted more than 700 delegates, and featured such renowned speakers as Harvard professor Clayton Christensen; Kevin Slavin, co-founder of Area/Code in 2005 and the head of the “Playful Systems” division of MIT’s Media Lab; Rick Smolan, the creator of the Day in the Life book series and new volume The Human Face of Big Data; and Robert Scoble, co-author of Age of Context.

The congress included the Student Superpower Challenge, in which more than 900 high school students learned about data-based entrepreneurship. The participating teens will develop projects in the coming months and pitch them in May.

The theme throughout was that data-based technologies are now pretty well mainstream and are already changing the way businesses operate.

Scoble, for example, has examined the confluence between five components — social media, sensors, data, wearable technologies and location-based technology — that are coming together to revolutionize how businesses interact with their customers. Cars, he said, are becoming personalized data hubs. Wine companies can now market only to people who buy the finest vintages.

Football teams are doing personalized, real-time marketing to their best fans at the stadiums.

In Atlantic Canada, several startups are using big data to revolutionize established processes. Corrine McIsaac, the CEO of Health Outcomes Worldwide of New Waterford, explained how her company has collected three million pieces of data on wound care — a field of health care that costs $3.8 billion per year. By employing data-based processes, McIsaac said Health Outcomes can cut the cost of wound treatment and the time it takes to heal by more than 50 per cent.

“If we used big data efficiently, we could fix this health-care system,” she told a session on data and health care Tuesday.

The second conference differed from the first offering in that there was more excitement last year about the possibilities of big data. This year the attitude is that big data is here. It’s being adopted on many fronts. And now there’s a business-like attitude that it’s time to adopt it more.

“I think we’re going to look back at 2014 as the year when everything started to change,” said Smolan, in discussing the Human Face of Big Data. “We’re at the tipping point right now.”