NSERC grants $5 million to data management research

A group of Canadian academics researching data management has received CD$5 million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The Business Intelligence Network (BIN), comprised of researchers and vendors, was formed earlier this year and focuses on better management of information for improved business decisions.

Renée Miller, a computer scientist and the primary investigator with BIN at the University of Toronto, said the quality of data is a particularly important challenge for businesses given information is often incomplete and inconsistent.

“Right now, you find businesses making business decision based on data that is flawed in many ways,” said Miller.

Research by BIN includes strategy and policy management regarding data, as well as information extraction, data integration and data quality.

BIN will receive one million dollars per year for five years. The majority of the funding will go toward paying student stipends for research in the area of data management.

The remaining funding will be used for travel expenses to allow students hands-on experience by collaborating with industry organizations, and to cover program infrastructure costs, said Miller.

BIN comprises 15 researchers from the universities of Toronto, Alberta, British Columbia, Ottawa, Waterloo, Carleton and Dalhousie. Other members include vendors like Germany-based SAP AG, Cupertino, Calif.-based IBM Corp., and Toronto-based Zerofootprint Inc.

The funding, received last April but only just announced publicly now, is subject to annual review, said Miller. BIN plans to supplement the required reporting to NSERC with an external review panel of international researchers in the third year of funding, she added.

According to Janet Walden, vice-president of research partnership programs with Ottawa-based NSERC, BIN’s approach is both integrated and collaborative.

“That’s what this network does, it takes a comprehensive look at developing a research program to address the challenges (with business intelligence),” said Walden.

That comprehensive tack touches on the areas of business requirements modeling, asset documentation, data quality and integration of relevant data –all upon which sound business decisions are made, said Walden.

The collaborative aspect of BIN, said Walden, sees network members contributing in cash and in kind. In kind contributions include providing real data sets and use cases, and co-developing business intelligence tools for various purposes.

Ron Dembo, founder and CEO of Toronto-based BIN member organization Zerofootprint, said as the world gets increasingly bombarded with data, it isn’t exactly obvious how to extract value from that information.

One of the things that Zerofootprint does is build “smart plugs” or IP-based wall outlets through which appliances can communicate with the internet. However, Dembo said the challenge then becomes dealing with all this generated data.

“We will be more and more reliant on that data because there won’t be a human between us and the data,” said Dembo.

“Data will become crucial,” he continued. “It’s not just nice to have clean data anymore. Your life will depend on it.”

Miller said funding will also go towards research into technology that will warn businesses of inconsistencies in their raw data, and help them cleanse it.

BIN is also looking into the use of emerging data sources like social media sites – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter – within the business.

“Businesses really want to be able to use that type of information in their business processes to make better business decisions,” said Miller.

BIN also has an interest in data privacy to address the balance that is extracting available information and respecting individuals’ privacy, said Miller.

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