Innovative technology helps small business crunch big data, revealing consumer patterns and market trends

The Bigger Picture
Innovative technology helps small business crunch big data, revealing consumer patterns and market trends

With a multi-million deal inked with IBM in November to make Halifax home to the tech giant’s newest global analytics centre, Nova Scotia is positioning itself to ride the big data wave.

Big data is the process of mining vast stores of data for small gems of information that can provide end users with critical information that might not be otherwise available. It can reveal consumer patterns, buying intentions, health trends and public opinion.

Once the domain of computer scientists in mega firms like Facebook, Google and Amazon.com, new information technology entrepreneurs are providing smaller businesses the opportunity to get new insights, predict outcomes and develop profitable niche markets.

Radian 6, a New Brunswick firm whose software allows companies to track what is said about them online, is Atlantic Canada’s poster child for the sector. In 2011 it was scooped up by California–based Salesforce.com for $236 million.

Leadsift, a student-launched Halifax firm, collects social media conversations about things like car purchases or vacations and then bundles and sells the information to car dealers or travel agents. It went looking for investors recently and quickly raised $1.13 million, including $500,000 from one of Canada’s largest pension funds.

Corrine McIsaac, a nurse from Cape Breton who was frustrated by the shortfalls she saw in the treatment of wounds, turned to big data to find “best practice” solutions that were in use around the globe.

Her company, Health Outcomes Worldwide, now has the world’s largest database for wound care and is selling software applications to hospitals, home care professionals and long term care facilities across Canada. It recently received $1.5 million in support from the Government of Nova Scotia and doubled the size of its workforce to 15.

“International investors are paying attention to what is happening in Atlantic Canada,“ says Dr. Dawn Jutla, a Saint Mary’s University professor developing a new Masters program focused on teaching entrepreneurs how to leverage technology and new big data opportunities to develop marketable products and services.

Part of the buzz is the IBM deal, but she says the other part is the growing realization that big data is not only about IT and statisticians jobs, but in its applications for solving challenges like those facing the environment, healthcare, the aged and the ocean.

Under the terms of the IBM deal, the global technology giant will hire 500 people over eight years in exchange for $12.2 million in provincial support. The corporate payroll could top $130 million and would generate $18.7 million in provincial income tax.

As the deal was struck, IBM signed another agreement with several universities and the Nova Scotia Community College to ensure the research and programming was in place to provide the employees to fill the positions. Global surveys show that only one in 10 companies feel they have the skill base needed to undertake complex data analysis.

Some of the students needed to fill the void may be working in Anatoliy Gruzd’s new social media lab at Dalhousie University.

“My hope is we will be able to create even more software tools and apps that reduce the information overload and help people make sense of our networked world,” says Dr. Gruzd.

The issue of big data is fraught with privacy issues, but Dr. Jutla says there are opportunities there too. Cyber security companies like Select Technology Inc. of Halifax will grow as they find ways to protect new companies surfing the wave from wipeouts.

By Steve Proctor

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