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McMaster University’s Research Newsmagazine

Fall 2015

IQ

INNOVATION QUEST

Big Data IN THIS ISSUE:

Cracking the code for predictive analytics


McMaster University’s Research Newsmagazine

Fall 2015

IQ

INNOVATION QUEST

Collecting, analyzing, autonomizing, and sharing big data in its most secure state requires big thinkers. Trust me when I tell you, at McMaster, there is no shortage of big thinkers. This issue of IQ is focused on ‘Big Data’ and, more precisely, the incredibly talented researchers at McMaster who, along with their research teams – including undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows – are making amazing strides to ensure that the right data are reaching the right people at the right time. You see, at McMaster, researchers in every discipline, in every corner of our campus, are working with enormous sets of data to improve the lives of Canadians – whether through combatting infectious disease, performing clinical trials, imaging brains, interpreting cultures, discovering stars, or ensuring the right infrastructure is in place to support our research community. Although their work varies, to be sure, all of our researchers share a common bond. They know the true value of their work is measured not by output, but by outcomes – how their work is adding to Canada’s, indeed the world’s, economic, social and cultural prosperity. With the creation of our new MacDATA Institute, and our existing support for research computing led by the Research and High-Performance Computing team, previously disparate groups will be working together to achieve even greater goals. Take some time away from the seemingly never-ending deluge of data that overwhelms each and every one of us, day after day. Instead, sit back, relax, and discover how McMaster researchers are working with big data to improve the way we all live, work and play. Enjoy the read. Allison Sekuler Acting Vice-President, Research (and a big fan of big data)

n On the cover: Abigail Payne, director of MacDATA and professor of economics

INQUIRE IQ is published by the Office of the Vice-President, Research Editor Lori Dillon Contributors Andrew Baulcomb, Sherry Cecil, Danelle D’Alvise, Maria Lee Fook, Meredith MacLeod Design Nadia DiTraglia Photography Ron Scheffler

HOT TOPICS 3

Data for the stars Christine Wilson

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Guillaume Paré

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Andrew McArthur

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Abigail Payne

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Salim Yusuf

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Ranil Sonnadara

 Gene machine

 Battling bacteria with big data

 McMaster launches MacDATA

 Global reach, lasting impact

 Innovative infrastructure

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Paul McNicholas

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Allison Sekuler

 The A-Team

 Brain buzz

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Fei Chiang

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Mark Lawford

 Quality counts

 Driving with data

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Elkafi Hassini

IQ

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Byron Spencer

(905) 525-9140 ext. 27002 | iq@mcmaster.ca | research.mcmaster.ca

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Victor Kuperman

Please forward inquiries to: Office of the Vice-President, Research Gilmour Hall 208, McMaster University, 1280 Main Street West Hamilton ON CANADA L8S 4L8 Printed in Canada 10/2015

 Supply chain success

 McMaster’s Research Data Centre

 Mining for data


Data for the stars CHRISTINE WILSON The vast amount of astronomical data being collected by high-powered telescopes presents both a challenge and an opportunity for scientists studying our universe. The challenge is that the data is outpacing the ability of high-end desktop computers to download and process it. But the opportunities to answer questions about how stars are formed are boundless, says Christine Wilson, professor of physics and astronomy. From 1999 to 2014, Wilson was the Canadian Project Scientist for the massive Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the world’s most sophisticated ground-based radio telescope perched high in the Andes in Chile. While getting viewing time on the telescope is difficult because of the large demand, Wilson is beginning to crunch the data retrieved by other scientists to aid her own research. “One of the things that is very cool about the new telescope is that archives of the data will be publically available after just one year… We’ll be able to synthesize the data gathered by others and look at it in new ways.” There is about a year’s worth of ALMA data in the public domain now, which Wilson expects will triple over the next year. She spent a sabbatical in 2013 to 2014 beginning her archival project at ALMA’s international headquarters in Santiago and the North American headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia. Though the launch of the telescope was hampered by power system troubles in 2013, Wilson was able to help with some of ALMA’s commissioning and calibration. She’s also done research at the Submillimeter Array operated by the Smithsonian Observatory in Hilo, Hawaii and was part of the team that built SPIRE, one of three instruments of the Hershel Space Observatory, which operated from 2009 to 2013. Wilson, who discovered Comet Wilson while she was a grad student at Caltech,

n Christine Wilson, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, with ALMA antenna dishes in background is primarily interested in the formation of stars in nearby galaxies. (Galaxies that are 500 million light years away qualify as “nearby.”) She looks at the properties of gas in the interstellar medium and giant molecular clouds to understand what is necessary to create stars. “Why are some galaxies forming stars much faster than others? What are the properties of the gas that mean star formation catches fire? ALMA gives us a bird’s eye view of it.” ALMA allows for much sharper images than possible before, allowing scientists to see previously unseen detail. “Putting all the datasets together from the archival data has got to lead us someplace but I’m just starting out, so I don’t know where that is yet.” While in grad school, Wilson managed only the second sighting of a giant molecular cloud in one local galaxy and has been hooked on her branch of inquiry, radio-astronomy, ever since. Using radio frequencies allows scientists to probe into the dark regions of space where galaxy collisions trigger intense bursts of star formation, as well as exploring the quieter star formation process, which is the norm in galaxies like our own Milky Way.

Astronomers take information gathered from high-resolution images of nearby galaxies to deduce what is happening in galaxies much further away. Understanding the formation of stars is a crucial underpinning to understanding everything else in the universe, says Wilson. There is plenty to learn, with about 96 per cent of the universe unknown. Wilson, who grew up in Toronto, came to McMaster by way of a Women’s Faculty Award from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council in 1992. She also received a Premier’s Research Excellence Award from the Ontario government in 1999 and was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2014. The large amounts of data being produced by modern, high-powered telescopes means Wilson and her students may have to take advantage of SHARCnet, the network of high-performance computers shared by 18 universities and colleges, including McMaster. The Research and High-Performance Computing Support group has also been invaluable to her work, she says. “Having that kind of support means that I don’t hit roadblocks in my work. The computer support at McMaster is the best I’ve ever seen anywhere.” n

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Gene machine GUILLAUME PARÉ

n Dr. Guillaume Paré, Canada Research Chair in Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology

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Guillaume Paré would be the first to admit that he wears many hats. A leading genomics scientist and epidemiologist – his genetic and molecular epidemiology lab is one of a few such labs in Canada – he is also a clinician who is using cutting-edge genomic techniques in the war against stroke. “Stroke used to be a disease of the elderly,” says the associate professor of pathology and molecular medicine, who holds a joint appointment in clinical epidemiology and biostatistics. “Today we’re seeing a growing number of Canadians having strokes in their 50s and 60s.” Armed with a Canada Research Chair in Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology, Paré is working to decipher the genetic architecture of strokes and better identify people who are at risk. By analyzing biomarkers (biological molecules found in blood), he discovered that some people carry a gene that makes their blood more likely to clot and interrupt blood flow to the brain. “Our findings show that young stroke victims – or about 60,000 Canadians – have genetic mutations that are related to cardiovascular disease. If we can identify those who have such mutations, we can start targeting them with drug therapies to reduce their risk.” Developing predictive and therapeutic technologies is not easy. It requires integrating vast amounts of data from biomedical research, clinical trials and patient feedback. Paré, who is also an associate director of MacDATA, is one of the few physician-scientists in Canada with the expertise to tackle this new and evolving area of research called pharmacogenetics. And he’s getting some help. In a move that could transform the way academic research is conducted in Canada and throughout the world, Cisco Canada has committed $1.6 million to McMaster to establish a university-wide research cloud computing environment and infrastructure.

Paré was named Cisco Professor in Integrated Health Biosystems to oversee the project, which will capture the value of the exponentially increasing volumes of data generated by McMaster researchers. The simple cloud-based infrastructure will replace the silo approach that typically exists in universities, where data is created and accessed only by the original research team and seldom shared across campus. It will allow researchers at McMaster to share data and collaborate more effectively across the university, with other institutions and with industry to ensure novel approaches and applications make their way to the wider world.

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“Tackling big data problems is the last hurdle that stands in the way of us using genomics tools in the lab to inform patient care.”

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And, says Paré, to the bedside. “We have accelerated the pace of discovery in genetics. DNA sequencing is becoming more accessible and affordable every day. Tackling big data problems is the last hurdle that stands in the way of us using genomics tools in the lab to inform patient care.” He’s already made significant progress, discovering new genetic markers for an anticoagulant that can decrease bleeds by 30 per cent, and another genetic variant that boosts the effects of aspirin in decreasing the risk of stroke. These breakthroughs are just the tip of the iceberg, says Paré. “Discovery of a gene linked to familial high cholesterol in the blood has led to the development of new drugs that could prevent heart disease within 10 years. If we can repeat this feat through the discovery of yet unknown genes, we might well make cardiovascular disease a thing of the past.” n


Battling bacteria with big data ANDREW McARTHUR It’s possible that one day patients with a bacterial infection will be able to walk into a hospital or clinic, have that bacteria genome sequenced on site and walk out the same day with a drug custom-designed to fight that bacterial strain. That’s the kind of world Andrew McArthur is working towards. He’s the inaugural Cisco Research Chair in Bioinformatics and an associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences. His work focuses on building a world of big data to battle antibiotic resistant infection. “It’s a global crisis and it’s getting worse by the week.” The World Health Organization has identified resistance to antibiotics as one of the top three challenges to human health. The Centres for Disease Control estimates that more than 2 million people in the United States are sickened every year with antibioticresistant infections and at least 23,000 die. Britain estimates that by 2050, there will be a global drop in GDP of three to four per cent because of drug resistance. The emergence of “super-bugs” that are resistant to most, if not all, of available antibiotics has resulted in a growing health crisis. All of this has happened much quicker than it was ever anticipated, says McArthur. The poor use of antibiotics for decades accelerated the development of resistance. “We are at risk of re-entering a preantibiotic world where we can’t fight many infections.” Some strains of gonorrhea are now 100 per cent untreatable, fears are rising about drug-resistant tuberculosis, and some hospitals fear loss of the ability to perform hip replacements because they can’t contain secondary infections, says McArthur. Physicians have to play a guessing game about what drugs to prescribe and ultimately, may have nothing that will work. Yet, sequencing of DNA can now be done at a high speed and low cost never before possible. Ultimately, that testing could be done at hospitals and clinics, rather than at centralized labs.

n Andrew McArthur holds the inaugural Cisco Research Chair in Bioinformatics What is lacking is the routine, continuous and complete collection of data around drug resistance to help clinicians choose treatment plans, to give public health officials the ability to monitor the emergence of resistance and detect and track outbreaks and to guide the development of new drugs to fight them. “The tools are there but we’ve been slow to create a big data environment.” So McArthur and his team are working on writing software and algorithms to collect, analyze and aggregate potentially millions of data points a day collected from front-line DNA sequencers. That is critical to the development of new, targeted antibiotics, which is an expensive and risky venture now but crucial because the effectiveness of broadspectrum drugs has been destroyed by the ability of pathogens to mutate. McArthur says governments worldwide have made tackling antibiotic resistance a priority. The British government has even put the threat on the same scale as global terrorism. That means there is more funding channelled into the problem than ever before. Creating the big data environment to take on the crisis will require the work of academics, health-care professionals, governments, public health authorities, pharmaceutical companies and the information technology sector all brought together.

Before coming to McMaster, McArthur owned a bioinformatics company and consulted and collaborated with researchers in academia and government, including several investigators at McMaster. That includes a four-year project with Canada Research Chair in Antibiotic Biochemistry Gerry Wright of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research in the construction of the Comprehensive Antibiotic Resistance Database (CARD), with a consortium of academic and government researchers in Canada and the United Kingdom. McArthur says he was enticed to take the Cisco chair a year ago because McMaster has a long and pioneering history of evidence-based medicine. “The best data means making the best decisions. We need a big data solution to this crisis.” These are early days in the big data revolution, especially in the medical field, and there is much to learn, says McArthur. Then there are ethical and legal challenges to the collection and sharing of health-care information, and to be effective, infection data must be shared globally. It’s no easy task, says McArthur, but the consequences of failure are grave. “Bacteria are tricky little things that can outsmart us. That’s why we have resistance. …But there is real hope we have a chance now.” n

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IQ feature story

ABIGAIL PAYNE Abigail Payne already had big ideas about big data when she was appointed director of MacDATA – McMaster’s newly created big data institute. The one-time lawyer-turned-economist has been in the data business for more than two decades, working with local educators, governments and charities, analyzing their administrative and proprietary data to understand how the services they provide affect the communities in which they operate. And now she’s keen to put that experience to work as the founding director of the multidisciplinary institute.

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MacDATA

“Most universities take a narrow view of big data, confining their research initiatives and training programs to a single faculty, typically business, science or engineering,” says Payne, who for the past 13 years has headed PEDAL – Public Economics Data Analysis Laboratory – a secure data laboratory, that transforms administrative and proprietary data to study policy relevant issues based at McMaster. “But researchers in every faculty touch data, technology, and/or the tools needed to work with data. Each discipline brings an insight and an expertise yet they face the same issues around creation, collection, processing, storage and analysis. We need to find synergies that allow us to work together and learn from each other.” The result is a big data initiative that is uniquely McMaster: A collaborative, crossdisciplinary approach that values innovation

and is focused on outcomes. There will be no big data facility, and leadership of the institute will be shared with two associate directors, currently one from engineering and one from health sciences. “I like to describe MacDATA as an institute that hovers,” says Payne. “We still want to encourage individuals to do their own thing but, at the same time, we want to get them talking to each other, sharing information and feeding off each other’s work in ways that will elevate everyone’s research.” Moreover, she notes, while so many researchers embrace data in their work, MacDATA offers an opportunity to see the bigger picture. “MacDATA will showcase the insights that are being generated through the development and analysis of data as well as our technological advances that permit the collection of data to create a bigger picture of how things work in


our society and how to understand better the issues individuals, organizations, and governments face.” Having a social scientist lead the way is not a stretch, says Payne. “It’s not just about the data. It’s about how we’re using it. Is it just a lot of numbers or is it a meaningful indicator that can be used to improve decision making? Data scientists are really good on the tools, but their work can be complemented by researchers who want to answer questions that the tools will help address. Similarly, she says, researchers who ask questions benefit by understanding what tools are available to support, and even speed up, their research. For Payne, who specializes in developing high quality research data for projects that address key public sector issues, that means improving educational outcomes, helping charities deliver better results, and strengthening communities. “But,” she acknowledges, “big data means many things across the university – it could be producing a safer car, delivering better medicine, improving transportation, or predicting the success of a business tool.” It’s an approach that’s in lockstep, she says, with where universities should be heading. “Historically, universities were at the centre of the universe in data collection. Today, data are being created everywhere by everyone. Some of that data, with the right tools and using careful analysis, can be used to enhance our understanding of the world. So the question we, as a university must ask, is what is our role and how do we give value?” MacDATA researchers have several things in mind. One is to partner with businesses, nonprofits and governments to develop new tools that assist in data cleaning, data linking, and data analyses that fuel innovation and advances in industry, science, policy development and public services. Another is to provide McMaster students, researchers and practitioners with the skills they need to traverse the big data terrain, now and well into the future. True to her background, Payne is determined to ensure students from every faculty and discipline have the opportunity to receive training in the acquisition, storage, processing, analysis and use of large data sets.

Just as data scientists can learn from social and health scientists, and others across the disciplines, the same holds true as to what we can learn from them, says Payne, adding what is equally important is “our collective understanding of the philosophical and ethical underpinnings about how we collect and use data.” One of the institute’s challenges will be to consider and engage the University in how we think about data security and privacy. It’s a challenge Payne has had years of experience managing as director of PEDAL, which has just received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to upgrade to a high-security facility with enhanced technology and safer administrative protocols.

( ) “Big data means many things across the university – it could be producing a safer car, delivering better medicine, improving transportation, or predicting the success of a business tool.”

In an era when pop-up ads for products you’ve just googled haunt your computer, credit cards record your purchase habits, and mobile phones track your every move, it’s not easy to remain anonymous. Pregnant teens found out the hard way in 2002 when Target launched a coupon campaign based on a “pregnancy prediction algorithm” that tracked their purchase of baby products, and many a marriage is now on the rocks thanks to poorly protected passwords of clients using Ashley Madison’s cheating web site. “Big data has had a lot of bad press,” confesses Payne. Does that mean we should not pursue the use of data for research and innovation? “Absolutely not,” she says. “Instead we should consider how best to provide a spectrum of security when working with sensitive or proprietary data, and how we ensure that everyone

across the institution is engaging in best practices around the handling of data.” One solution, which McMaster researchers are now working on, is to use machine learning algorithms that would raise a red flag whenever security is compromised. Another consideration is to think more carefully about how we structure data used in analyses. “Every minute, a billion bits of data are being created. But to answer certain research questions, we may need only a million bits,” says Payne. More important than the amount of data may be the availability of real-time data that companies and governments can use to make important decisions that impact their customers and citizens – an area where McMaster can play a critical role. Payne points to the successful interactive data portal that the City of Edmonton has developed that publishes data on the city’s performance on a wide range of services. It’s a model – a citizen’s dashboard, if you will – that she’d like to see Hamilton implement. “There are natural synergies between our research teams and our local community that would benefit from a similar type of dashboard,” she says, using the example of improving living conditions through data gained by examining homeless shelters. “Working together and sharing our data means we’ll accomplish more. Looking at single measures of data only tells part of the story, but connecting those data points will put us on the fasttrack to putting a plan in place to find solutions,” she says. Payne is excited about MacDATA’s approach, which is already resonating with industry, government and other organizations, and is keen to have both sides of the research enterprise at the same table. “She recalls being the only social scientist at a 2014 IBM conference for data scientists and how she jumped to her feet when organizers pronounced they had “all the people we need right here in this room” to solve the issues around big data. “I said, no, you don’t. You have only half the people.” MacDATA, she promises, will always have all of the right people in the room. n

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Global reach, lasting impact SALIM YUSUF

Photo courtesy PHRI

There is no universal definition of big data but if there were one, the work of the Population Health Research Institute (PHRI) must certainly qualify. For 23 years, the PHRI, founded as a collaboration of McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences, has been conducting worldwide studies of hundreds of thousands of people, combining clinical

n Dr. Salim Yusuf, founder and executive director of PHRI

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trials with population studies, to determine the factors that lead to the world’s most devastating diseases. “We collect data from 50 to 60 countries every day and generate 15 million to 20 million pages of data every year,” said Dr. Salim Yusuf, founder and executive director of the institute and a professor in the Department of Medicine. Altogether, PHRI studies have included more than 1 million people worldwide. That requires an IT group of 40 people to set up and manage the software and hardware; 28 biostatisticians to write extensive programs to check that the data are valid, clean and accurate and to analyse them; and about 35 principal investigators to design the studies, and manage them with a team of project managers and coordinators. The PHRI works with more than 1,500 sites around the world, with 30 projects currently in progress. “No one institute can have all the expertise,” said Yusuf. “Without collaboration, our work would not exist. And that’s collaboration across borders, across specialities and across fields. The most important questions cross multiple areas.” The PHRI was formed with an initial focus on cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but research areas have broadened to include population genomics, perioperative medicine, stroke, thrombosis, cardiovascular surgery, renal disease, obesity, childhood obesity, nutrition and trauma and implementation science. The institute employs about 320 researchers and staff. That makes it among the largest health research institutes in Canada. But by number of published papers in high-impact journals, more than 2,250, and number of citations, the PHRI is the country’s research institute with the greatest global impact, says Yusuf, who was the second-most cited researcher in the world in 2011.

That same year, the institute was ranked Number 7 in the world in the collective impact of its work. Yusuf didn’t always imagine the institute would grow to where it is today. “We just wanted to do good research. That lead to better research, and then to even better research. Things have certainly snowballed,” said Yusuf, who was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and awarded the Canada Gairdner Wightman Award for leadership in medicine and medical science last year. He is also an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Royal Society of Canada and current president of the World Heart Foundation. “Collectively, we have some of the best investigators in the world here who work as a great team.” The institute examines the biological and genetic determinants of health, along with social, environmental and policy factors. “To get precise estimates of the effects of a risk factor or that of any treatment, we need several thousands of each type of event and then relate them to specific exposures, whether that’s diet, activity or pollution.” One of the largest studies conducted by PHRI, the Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiological Study, includes 225,000 subjects from 25 countries and will track them over 10 years to determine the impact of urbanization on disease risk factors. “That is one of the biggest studies in the world. We are linking it with satellite image data on air pollution and then able to relate air quality to lung function, and rates of heart attack, lung disease or asthma.” The institute’s trials such as the Heart Outcomes Prevention and Evaluation (HOPE), RelY, and CURE, among others, have also advanced treatments of cardiovascular diseases, and studies such as INTEHEART and INTERSTROKE have advanced knowledge on the causes of heart attacks and strokes. These studies will also have lasting impact, says Yusuf. n


n Ranil Sonnadara heads up McMaster’s Research and High-Performance Computing Support team

Innovative infrastructure RANIL SONNADARA McMaster University was a pioneer when it launched a technology incubator dedicated to supporting, training and collaborating with researchers needing software and hardware support. The Research and High-Performance Computing Support (RHPCS) group is now 14 years old and has become a key facilitator of the uptake of advanced computing by McMaster’s research community. Think of it as a 15-member technology SWAT team that can partner with researchers, teams, labs and departments in every faculty at any point in their project. “We help people interface with technology to answer the questions they are exploring,” said RHPCS director Ranil Sonnadara. He says that is critical to a research-intensive university such as McMaster. “RHPCS has enabled research at McMaster to thrive.” The team was formed when researchers from different faculties, who were pushing the boundaries of what was possible with computers at the time, needed specialized support. The research-focused system analysts and programmers from the central information technology group and individual research

groups spread across the campus were gathered into a core team. Some campus researchers know how to design the technology they need and simply need help with the execution, says Sonnadara. Others need help untangling how technology can help them with research methodology, data extraction, number crunching, signal processing, simulation, modelling and visualization.

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“RHPCS has enabled research at McMaster to thrive.”

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Some research, such as modelling of the universe, requires powerful servers, large amounts of storage and extensive involvement of RHPCS staff. Other research requires fewer resources and less intensive support. In some cases, RHPCS staff work with local technology support staff in research labs, in others they take on the role of research staff directly.

Whatever the needs, RHPCS is able to customize a solution. “We can create the infrastructure that allows data collection and analysis in a timely manner,” said Sonnadara, who came to McMaster to earn his PhD in experimental psychology, and now holds academic appointments in the Departments of Surgery, and Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. That means having staff members who understand the hardware and software but can also speak the language of research. Sonnadara says his team is highly skilled and works hard to enhance McMaster’s reputation as a research-intensive university. Some members of RHPCS work for SHARCNET (the Shared Hierarchical Academic Research Computing Network), a consortium of 18 universities who share a network of high-performance computers, of which McMaster was a founding partner. The university has made digital infrastructure for research a high priority, said Sonnadara, who is a special advisor to McMaster’s Vice-President of Research, and serves as Vice-Chair of Compute Ontario, – continued on next page

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The A-Team

Innovative infrastructure

PAUL McNICHOLAS Statistician Paul McNicholas heads up what he thinks of as a campus A-Team. His group, The Computational Statistics Research Group, solves Paul McNicholas problems and tackles data that others can’t. “We try to be the A-Team of computational statistics problems. We tackle the big problems where the data sets are very large and complex. We are looking for subgroups.” The 21-member group of four post-doctoral fellows, eight PhD students, seven masters students and two undergraduates is the biggest of its kind in Canada, says McNicholas, a professor in Mathematics and Statistics.

( ) “Big data sometimes means constant updating because data can keep coming. People think of big data as a lot of data but it’s more than that.”

The group has funding support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Government of Ontario, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and an industry partner, Compusense Inc. McNicholas, who held a faculty position at the University of Guelph from 2007 and served as the director of the Bioinformatics programs there for two years, was drawn to McMaster in July 2014 because of its culture of inter-disciplinary research. “Mac is such a great place to be for a statistician,” he said. “When I came to think about Mac and what makes it really attractive, it’s that research cuts across disciplines. That inter-disciplinary research is precious to a statistician. It gives access to incredible data.”

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His advice to those striking out with their own research is to say yes as much as possible because collaborations are crucial and lead to great things. So how does a statistician see big data? McNicholas, says there are three V’s that make up big data. Volume means many variables; variety means those variables are of different type; and velocity means the data keeps coming. “Big data sometimes means constant updating because data can keep coming. People think of big data as a lot of data but it’s more than that.” McNicholas was an organizer of an industrial problem-solving workshop at the Fields Institute in Toronto earlier this year that led to a collaboration to study data collected at Rugby Canada Women’s Sevens games. That data was collected through GPS sensors on players’ backs that collected 84,000 points of data per player per game and will be used to study game strategies and training approaches. McNicholas is collaborating with Ayesha Khan in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour, to study the impact of community engagement on undergraduate learning, and with Nathan Magarvey in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, who researches drugs from nature. He’s also collaborating with Stuart Phillips from the Department of Kinesiology on the genetic impact of exercise. McNicholas is impressed by the programs run by McMaster’s School of Computational Science and Engineering in training specialists in computing and big data. “They’re great programs. I haven’t seen others like them.” McNicholas says one of Mac’s great resources is the Research and HighPerformance Computing Support group, which helped him with sourcing the equipment needed for his lab and worked to help secure research funding. “They’re magnificent. Without their presence, we couldn’t do what we do.” n

– continued from previous page a not-for-profit corporation that supports advanced computing across the province. RHPCS was crucial in setting up the initial infrastructure needed for the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, a national project headquartered at McMaster Innovation Park. It was also a key player in launching the LIVELab research concert hall at the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind. Staff at RHPCS worked on the infrastructure design in L.R. Wilson Hall, and have provided research support to many research groups including the McMaster Automotive Resource Centre, the Public Economics Data Analysis Laboratory, the Digital Music Lab, the Collaboratory for Research on Urban Neighbourhoods and the Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute. RHPCS has been successful in facilitating research across campus by linking faculty members and staff working on similar problems or using similar technology, as well as leveraging research grants. “We support big projects but often the most value we can provide is in helping individual researchers who are getting their teams off the ground,” said Sonnadara. “Quite often the most innovative ideas can have bigger pay offs but they can be less likely to succeed. By having infrastructure such as RHPCS provides available, research projects can be spun up quickly without requiring a large initial investment. This allows more freedom to researchers because their risk is lower, and can enable them to quickly collect data that can be leveraged in grant applications.” RHPCS was recognized by Orion’s ACTION report in 2014 as being the “gold standard” in academic research computing support in Canada. n


Brain buzz Imaging the 100 billion neurons of the brain produces a lot of data all by itself. But with access to the thousands of users of apps designed to Allison Sekuler improve brain function, researchers have more data than they ever dreamed of, says Allison Sekuler, co-director of the Vision and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at McMaster. When the lab uses an EEG test to collect brain wave information, each patient is set up with 256 electrodes that can measure brain activity every millisecond for an hour or more. But there is a practical limit to how many subjects can be measured in a lab, so typical studies report results from just 10 to 20 individuals. To overcome that limit, the lab is collaborating with InteraXon, the Torontobased developer of Muse, a EEG headband that measures the electrical activity of the brain to help users achieve better focus and lower stress levels. Muse sends data collected through sensors in the headband to a smartphone app. The app then guides the user to shift to a more focused, less stressed state of mind. Purchasers are asked if the data collected by the device and stored in cloud servers can be used for brain research. About 68 per cent of users consent, so a first grouping of data included more than 6,000 users and repeated EEG tests over time. “That gives us access to an incredibly large amount of brain data we couldn’t have imagined before,” said Sekuler, a professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour and Acting Vice-President of Research at McMaster. The numbers, which are expected to be closer to 25,000 unique users when the lab gets access to data for its next analyses, brings more clarity to the variability of aging, says Sekuler, whose

Photo: Donna Waxman

ALLISON SEKULER

n Research assistant Sarah Batiste instructs a senior research participant on using the Muse band husband Patrick Bennett is co-director of the lab and chair of the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. “Some people age quickly and some age much more slowly. When we are looking at 6,000 people instead of 20, there are so many more data points to fill in the missing parts. We may have hundreds of people in each age group, which allows us to see the trends so much more clearly.” That includes the differences in the aging brains of men and women. The goal is to map the changes in the brain and then determine if there are ways to train it to offset the effects of aging. The lab presented its first findings out of the data at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in mid-October. That round of research was funded by a National Science and Engineering Research Council Engage grant. Future research will include documenting whether mindfulness and cognitive training has long-term results beyond narrow tasks. “We’ll be looking at the neuro-markers to predict who is benefiting and who isn’t and assessing how much the brain has improved.” Sekuler sees tremendous opportunities to piggyback scientific research with data generated by apps or devices. She points to an iPhone game where users are scanning baggage for contraband at

the airport. It becomes gradually more challenging. A colleague studying attention and learning has access to the playing data of hundreds of thousands of users. Smart cars will collect untold numbers of data points that can feed studies of distracted driving or the impacts of aging. Graeme Moffat, director of scientific affairs at InteraXon, says collaboration with McMaster researchers is crucial to the company, which launched in 2009 and released its first iteration of Muse in August 2014. “Neuroscience at McMaster is very highly regarded in Canada and around the world. It’s impossible for us to do this kind of work in-house,” he said. InteraXon is seeking more research grants to continue partnership with the neuroscience lab and other scientists at McMaster. He predicts the neuro-wearable space to expand rapidly and to have benefits in treating a range of disorders, including attention deficit, depression, dementia, post-traumatic stress and anxiety. The collaboration has convinced the company to create the infrastructure to allow continuous access for researchers to ever-growing data streams. “We can’t make the most of the data,” said Moffat. “No one knows the limits of what can be done with it.” n

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n Fei Chiang and some of her graduate students from the Data Science Research Lab

Quality counts FEI CHIANG How is it that your financial institution, cell phone company or local cable provider knows everything about you from your postal code to your mother’s maiden name, but they can’t figure out how to correct extra charges on your monthly statement without bouncing you from one department to another, or putting you on hold for an interminable amount of time? It’s an all-too-familiar scenario that underscores one of the challenges of big data that extends beyond volume, velocity and variety. For Fei Chiang, the challenge is ensuring quality over quantity, focussing on the veracity and value of the data – whether or not it’s accurate, consistent and timely. “Many companies simply aren’t sharing the data they’ve collected on their customers,” says Chiang, associate director of the MacDATA Research Institute. “If updates aren’t done across departments, then the department that knows the details about your service plan won’t know that you’ve moved, or perhaps changed the PIN on your account.” For the computing and software professor, an easy solution is a central repository that keeps everyone in synch with the client’s most current data. However, this is not always practically feasible due to synchronization and concurrency issues.

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Chiang and her research group focus on developing the techniques and tools that can repair, clean, validate and safeguard the massive datasets generated by telecommunications corporations, financial institutions, health care systems and industry. Their work ensures that high quality data is produced, which in turn ensures valuable insights and real-time decision making – right down to solving the issue with your cell phone provider in one short, efficient phone call. Chiang’s Data Science Research Lab is involved in a number of projects, one of which involves a collaboration with IBM Canada. Her research team is tackling the challenge of developing efficient data cleaning algorithms that can be used in IBM’s product portfolio. The software technology they’re developing would enable data cleaning tools that assess and predict a user’s intentions with the data. This would enable more customized software solutions that curate and clean the data according to the specific information a user is looking for. “Take for example the sports industry – we would create a customized data profile view that could be used by the fan who wants the latest stats for their football pool, and another view for the sports station that requires in-depth analysis and predictions for each and every team in the NHL,” Chiang explains.

“Whether it’s a basketball scout, the wagering industry or a marketing firm trying to foresee the World Series MVP so they can lock up a promotions contract, we are building automated software tools to provide users with consistent and accurate data based on their specific information needs.” The added bonus of working with IBM is that the prestigious global enterprise provides Chiang’s graduate students with entrée to the latest ‘real-world’ technologies and tools, plus access to modern data sets and the opportunity to solve data quality challenges. Yu Huang, one of Chiang’s PhD students, has also had the opportunity to work with IBM’s Centre for Advanced Studies as an intern. The internship is every year for three years, connecting Huang with architects and software developers, where he gains not only leading edge technological knowledge, but industry relevant experience. “It’s graduate students like Yu who are going to solve the next-generation challenges of Big Data, to harness its potential and power,” says Chiang. “It isn’t just the vast amounts of data that make Big Data ‘big’. The real value lies in extracting the value from this data to produce accurate, high quality data, and to reap the information and insights this data provides.” n


Driving with data MARK LAWFORD Accurate, timely and useful information is vitally important to industries and organizations across the board in today’s market. But nowhere is that information more important than in safety critical domains, says Mark Lawford. Lawford is a professor of Computing and Software and is an expert in software certification, safety critical real-time systems, and discrete event systems. He’s also the associate director of the McMaster Centre for Software Certification (McSCert), where he and his colleagues are building effective methods and efficient tools to demonstrate the safety and security of software intensive systems. The next phase of the research will involve extending the methods and tools to store, retrieve, and analyze vast amounts of data while ensuring the data and analysis are safe and secure. McSCert, says Lawford, is positioned to bring the big data revolution to systems safety analysis for the automotive and transportation industries, as well as the healthcare sector. Lawford knows the importance of safety from both research and practice. Prior to joining McMaster nearly 18 years ago, he consulted on the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station Shutdown Systems Redesign project – which earned him the Ontario Hydro New Technology Award for Automation of Systemic Design Verification of Safety Critical Software. More recently, he was a co-recipient of a Chrysler Innovation Award for his work with Dr. Ali Emadi, Canada Excellence Research Chair in Hybrid Powertrain, on the next generation affordable electrified powertrains. Lawford believes that in the future much of his time will be spent looking at how big data is affecting the auto industry. He estimates that cars are currently instrumented with between 60 – 100 sensors, but cautions that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

n Mark Lawford is the associate director of the McMaster Centre for Software Certification (McSCert) “The number of sensors in any one vehicle is expected to climb to as many as 200,” he says, noting that with autonomous driving and other advanced features, this is a conservative estimate. “With new vehicle sales topping 75 million a year, the amount of data generated by all of the sensors in all of these new vehicles is staggering,” he says. “We want to make sure that auto makers don’t miss a game changing opportunity by leaving all that data on the road.” Lawford and his colleagues at McSCert want to ensure that data finds its way back to the dealers and manufacturers. “We need to get this data into the right hands to enable them to perform big data analytics for fault diagnosis and, more importantly, fault prediction to improve system safety, as well as for fine tuning performance and concomitant energy savings.” Add to that the information flows required for vehicle-to-vehicle, and vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies of the future, he says, and the implication of data quality and security become even more crucial. The same holds true for health care systems of the near future, says Lawford, as interconnected medical devices work in conjunction to provide improved patient

care, particularly as these systems are integrated with electronic health records. McMaster is a recognized world leader in software engineering and software certification, working with industry, regulators and academics from around the world to improve software intensive system safety and reliability. Lawford points to the work of his colleagues, Tom Maibaum, Ridha Khedri, Rong Zheng, Doug Down Fei Chiang and Alan Wassyng, the director of McSCert, who have set the standard for software engineering research and have helped build McMaster’s reputation in this field. “It’s our collective ability to move our research out of the lab and into the marketplace,” he says, referencing research partnerships with industry leaders like IBM, Chrysler and GM, to name but a few. “It’s these industrial collaborations that will lead, quite naturally, to research into the use of big data analytics in these critical domains.” It’s in these domains, says Lawford, where we’ll see a rapidly increasing number of sensors generating data that are being integrated and monitored. “We need to use this data to predict vehicle reliability and safety, and to predict and improve performance, be that for fuel economy or patient outcome.” n

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Supply chain success ELKAFI HASSINI The DeGroote School of Business has made digital analytics a strategic priority and a key step to making that a reality is a new bigdata business analytics Elkafi Hassini lab to collect consumer and supplier information for Hamilton and Burlington companies. The Marketing and Supply Chain Analytics Lab (MiSCAN) is now under construction at the Ron Joyce campus in Burlington. “Businesses don’t have the big-picture data. They may have pieces but they may not have the expertise or the equipment to analyze the data so they can use it,” said Elkafi Hassini, research director, supply chain analytics, for MiSCAN. “There is a big need for people who can extract and analyze data and figure out how to use it to improve business operations. Most small and medium businesses don’t have that kind of capacity.” Big companies are interested in the project, too, because they need their suppliers to effectively manage their supply chains and operate efficiently. “If they are strong, the big companies are strong, too.” Funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, MiSCAN brings together a number of disciplines within the DeGroote School of Business. Marketing professor Sourav Ray is the lab’s research director of marketing analytics. Hassini says in addition to finding partners and customers, the team may look for campus research collaborators. He thinks the most likely will be found in engineering and health sciences. One of the keys is reassuring potential customers that all data will be confidential, says Hassini, an associate professor of operations management. Another challenge is developing graduates who have the breadth of necessary skills – a blend of computer science, statistics, optimization modelling

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and business – to answer the call for big data for business. Another step coming out of digital analytics (along with healthcare management) is an e-MBA in Digital Transformation, in collaboration with industry partners that will launch with a beta version next year. This program will be the first e-MBA in the world in the big data space. Among Hassini’s research projects, he’s working with students in the E-health program who study the implications of big data in the health supply chain of supplies and patient records. He’s also looking at using big data for measuring sustainability within supply chains. To account for sustainability across the three pillars – economic, environmental and social – requires looking at a broad spectrum of measures. “Companies are good at measuring their own performance but to extend to suppliers, there is no good framework for that. We need to think about what types of data to collect and what measures would be fair, reliable and acceptable throughout the supply chain.” Europe is far ahead in measuring sustainability and sharing that information with consumers so they can make big picture buying decisions, says Hassini. Big data provides the information to make supply chains more efficient. That includes customer experiences and feedback, quality and performance markers for suppliers, and efficiency measures for manufacturers. It’s often collected in real time to make important daily decisions. That data can be collected through chips and sensors embedded in equipment or products, while predictive customer analytics are used to ensure the right quantity and mix of products is sent to the right stores, for instance. “Apple is that successful because of its supply chain. They have manufacturing facilities around the world and they always have the product at the right place at the right time.” n

McMaster’s Research Data Centre Big Data is no stranger to McMaster University. It is, after all, home to Canada’s first Research Data Centre (RDC), which opened its doors in Byron Spencer December 2000. McMaster’s RDC is part of the Canadian Research Data Centre Network that includes 27 centres across the country. In partnership with Statistics Canada’s Research Data Centre Program, these centres have “literally transformed quantitative social science research in Canada,” according to Byron Spencer, scientific director of McMaster’s RDC. Spencer, who’s also the director of McMaster’s Research Institute for Quantitative Studies and Population, explains that these secure computer laboratories on university campuses across the country allow university, government and other approved researchers, the opportunity to analyse a vast array of social, economic and health data. At the McMaster RDC, some 150 researchers have access to detailed, deidentified information at the individual and household levels, based on hundreds of Statistics Canada surveys, censuses and a number of administrative databases. Spencer estimates there are close to 75 projects currently underway. Access to these files, says Spencer, allows us to investigate virtually all aspects of society, including the health, education, and well-being of the population. Such research, he says, leads to a better understanding of our society and provides an evidence-base on which to build policy. The RDCs are supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and host institutions. n


Mining for data The world’s largest collection of free data is located right at our fingertips. But what’s to be done when the desired sample size is so vast it could take weeks, months or even years to collect and process via conventional Internet browsing? Enter McMaster’s Victor Kuperman, associate professor of Linguistics and Languages. Throughout the past year, Kuperman and two McMaster PhD candidates have been reading and studying roughly 1.8 million blogs and webpages from 340,000 websites around the globe using a fleet of high-powered computers in Togo Salmon Hall. The sites are personal, commercial and governmental in nature. Their search has yielded valuable information from 20 countries and geographic regions where English is a primary language of communication, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Jamaica and the United Kingdom. The team is also collecting metadata that allows them to identify the source, genre and time-of-creation for each piece of text. Their goal is to mine the web’s seemingly bottomless pit of “big data,” in the hopes that their findings will impact everything from government policy to how we understand our global neighbours. “Blogs and websites are active all the time,” says Kuperman an expert in statistical and experimental methods in language research. “People exchange massive quantities of language and information every second of the day, and that big data is right there waiting to be analyzed.” Most recently, Kuperman’s team has been focusing on how our perception of various countries and cultures is impacted by what we glean from websites and blogs. They’ve found that first-world nations in Scandinavia and other Western European countries are often mentioned in posts alongside “positive” adjectives and “excited” sentiments. By comparison, third-world countries and nations embroiled in armed conflicts

Photo: Andrew Baulcomb

VICTOR KUPERMAN

n Victor Kuperman is an expert in statistical and experimental methods in language research and political crises are often associated with “negative” adjectives. The United States is a unique case, says Kuperman. Posts involving the U.S. are often, “more exciting, arousing and passionate,” whether leaning positive or negative. Big data, the foundation of the team’s research, is a relatively new term used to describe huge pools of information so large and unwieldy they’re often impossible to read or study in any meaningful way. Kuperman’s team is not only succeeding in doing so, they’re being rewarded for their efforts. The team recently received a $70,000 SSHRC Insight Development Grant, and will also receive $290,000 from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund and the Ontario Research Fund to continue their work. The real value in Kuperman’s research can be found in the forthright nature of the Internet, and the willingness of its users to share honest, unfiltered commentary. In other words, big data culled from the web provides a unique cross section of public opinion, without the added social filter that often comes with face-to-face interaction. “Our methods are not unlike traditional phone surveys run by polling agencies,

where they ask a resident, ‘what do you think about this or that?’ and record the data,” says Kuperman. “The major difference is, people speak more freely online. They’re much more open, because it can be a oneway exchange. Over the phone, in a one-on-one conversation, you may hold something back and not express your true opinion.” When McMaster’s new L.R. Wilson Hall is complete, Kuperman and his two PhD students – Bryor Snefjella and Daniel Schmidtke, fellows of the Lewis & Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship – will move across campus and continue their work using even faster computers and software in the University’s state-of-the-art home for the humanities and social sciences. He’s confident that several more PhD candidates will be able to join once the lab relocates, and that the team will be able to expand their focus into popular social networks, including Facebook and Twitter. The latter could prove to be an invaluable resource for collecting and studying big data. Roughly 288 million monthly active users post more than 500 million tweets per day, and more than 77 per cent of the network’s accounts are located outside the United States. n

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So what’s the big deal on big data? Just ask Guillaume Paré and Andrew McArthur who, with Cisco’s support, are improving the way vast amounts of biomedical data are managed, analyzed, integrated and distributed. They want to make sure that the right data is working for the right people at the right time. Their work will transform the way research is conducted and how healthcare is delivered. The way we see it, that’s a big deal. McMaster researchers Guillaume Paré, MD, Cisco Professor in Integrated Health Biosystems and Andrew McArthur, PhD, Cisco Research Chair in Bioinformatics

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Big Ideas, Better Cities is a year-long series of events showcasing how McMaster research can help cities respond to 21st century challenges.

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IQ - Innovation Quest Big Data Issue Fall 2015  

This issue is focused on 'Big Data' research at McMaster University and the University's new MacDATA Research Institute. The issue highligh...

IQ - Innovation Quest Big Data Issue Fall 2015  

This issue is focused on 'Big Data' research at McMaster University and the University's new MacDATA Research Institute. The issue highligh...

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