When Mark Damm looks at the world, he sees an opportunity to solve big problems with big data. In India, for example, electrical utilities must add millions of new customers while managing an unstable grid. And in South Africa, where electricity costs could jump almost 15 per cent annually through 2018, owners of commercial and industrial buildings are desperate to cut energy consumption.
"The only way they can do that typically is by understanding exactly where their energy use is coming from," says Mr. Damm, CEO of Fuseforward International Inc., a Vancouver-based developer of infrastructure management software for utilities, governments and businesses. "And that's a big data problem."
The data analytics field is ripe for even smaller tech-savvy Canadian companies to exploit on a global scale.
"We're entering a new realm that we're calling the data economy, where information becomes a very powerful asset for people to think more openly and broadly about identifying new sources of revenue and new opportunities to form different kinds of communities," says David Newman, a Texas-based research vice-president with IT research and advisory company Gartner Inc.
Fuseforward offers a solution to infrastructure challenges by analyzing data in real time through smart meters and digital sensors, which have proliferated in recent years thanks to falling prices. In South Africa, it works with partners to install sensors on buildings' lighting, cooling and other systems. As a result, its software can do things like pinpoint energy-sucking areas for refurbishing and lights that can be shut off at certain times of day.
Fuseforward's work is just one facet of big data – a catchphrase for new technologies that quickly grab and interpret large quantities of information from sources as diverse as weather conditions and social media.
Mr. Damm praises Canada's strengths in data analytics R&D, citing national research network Mitacs (Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems) and the University of Waterloo's mathematics faculty.
"From a Canadian competitiveness standpoint," he asks, "can we now build products to actually leverage the understanding of how all of this technology works and all of this data works in the way of big data, and build products that we can take into international markets?"
With support from a fellow Canadian big data specialist, Fuseforward is doing just that. Its analytics engine includes technology from Infobright, a Toronto-based provider of databases for machine-generated data.
Founded in 1998, Fuseforward spent a decade doing systems integration for cities and large utilities before commercializing what it had learned. It sells its products through Fuseforward Solutions Group Inc., where Mr. Damm also serves as CEO. Besides Canada and South Africa, he and 20-plus employees and contractors have customers in the United States and Britain.
Last year Fuseforward released the ICE (Intelligent Computing Environment) platform, a cloud-based service that lets clients run data analytics alongside their enterprise software. Where it would usually take an organization 24 to 36 months to build such a system from scratch, the ICE platform can be deployed in 30 days, Mr. Damm says.
Forecasts vary, but big data is a fast-expanding industry. By 2015, the global market for big data technology and services will have swelled to $16.9-billion (U.S.) from just $3.2-billion in 2010, market intelligence firm International Data Corp. predicts.
Behind this rapid growth is a continuing explosion in data. The world's total data is more than doubling every two years, according to a 2011 IDC study. That year alone, 1.8 zettabytes (about 1.8 trillion gigabytes) of data would be created and copied, the authors estimated – the equivalent of some 200 billion two-hour HD movies.
Gartner's Mr. Newman points to sentiment analysis as one application: A company can see how customers perceive its product by using big data to examine, say, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. "We're moving away from the early days of business intelligence, when we did retrospective analysis," Mr. Newman says. "The big data era, if you will, is going to give us a much better ability to be more targeted in our approach to our customers."
Canadian energy producers, retailers and banks are making good use of big data, says Jane Griffin, a Toronto-based executive adviser with Deloitte Canada. "Many of them are out looking for chief data officers now to manage that asset for them," she observes of the banks.
But generally speaking, big data may not be a priority for Canadian corporations. In a survey of Canadian companies this year, IDC Canada found only about 10 per cent of nearly 300 respondents had some version of a formal strategy to capitalize on big data opportunities. Meanwhile, 8 per cent were crafting one and about 48 per cent wanted to do so.
IDC Canada has also talked to a few Canadian companies that sank millions into sophisticated big data technology, says Nigel Wallis, research director of the firm's application solutions research group. "Later on [they] realized that they're not getting a lot of value out of it, because what they're doing is exactly what they did before – just faster."
Two things may be holding Canada back, Mr. Wallis contends. "One is that value play: What is the business case?" he says. "And companies in the tech sector could do a better job of outlining the advantages of big data."
Fuseforward has built a global business case by sifting through oceans of data for useful information. In just one of its accounts, 1 million readings come through each month, Mr. Damm says. For help, Fuseforward has turned to Infobright, whose database is now embedded in the ICE platform.
"Infobright is the storage mechanism that can take large volumes of data, compress it down and allow us to go through and mine it," Mr. Damm explains. "Then what we do is put our own mining and our own algorithms around that to start looking at exactly what that problem is and be able to identify the patterns."
Like Fuseforward, Infobright serves a global clientele; its customers range from banks and telecoms to public agencies. Its expertise in machine-generated data gives it an advantage over larger rivals, president and CEO Don DeLoach says. "We've been exploiting that in the context of the competitive environment and enjoying a good amount of success as a result."
Infobright does plenty of business here in Canada, Mr. DeLoach adds. "It is a global world, and big data knows no boundaries," he says. "What Fuseforward is doing is really in the crosshairs of where the market is going."
BIG DATA DETAILS
• "Big data technologies describe a new generation of technologies and architectures, designed to economically extract value from very large volumes of a wide variety of data, by enabling high-velocity capture, discovery, and/or analysis." – International Data Corp.
• Big data can be structured (CRM systems, spreadsheets) or unstructured (e-mails, images)
• Insights for Websites, Facebook's big data analytics tool, can process more than 20 billion events a day
• Consultancy McKinsey & Co. identifies five ways that big data can create value: 1. make information transparent and usable at a far higher frequency, 2. let organizations collect richer and more accurate performance information, 3. allow narrower customer segmentation, 4. dramatically improve decision-making, and 5. improve new products and services
• A retailer taking full advantage of big data can boost its operating margin by more than 60 per cent, McKinsey estimates
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