Funny how a phrase or buzzword pops up and spreads quickly through day to day conversations. "Big data" is one of these. Freelancer John Lorinc has explored the field in a feature in the current issue of University Affairs. Essentially, he explains, there is a lot of data out there in many different formats, sometimes "a vast soup that can include snippets of text and images and all sorts of background noise". Some examples include GPS signals from cell phones or transaction records generated by e-commerce or satellite data about the movement of ships.
"Computer science faculties have been teaching and researching very technical topics related to database management, data mining and machine learning for many years, but the potential of big data and its applications go well beyond these bounds," says Lorinc.Many universities have moved as quickly as they may to establish big-data programs. Dalhousie in Halifax did so in 2011 with its Institute for Big Data Analytics. Ryerson University in Toronto has just named Ontario's outgoing information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian to be executive director of its new Institute of Privacy and Big Data. The Université de Montréal is developing a masters program in big-text data. Simon Fraser is offering a new four-semester professional masters program in big data starting this fall.
"Many students are drawn to the field of big data because it offers them a chance to get involved in an emerging, knowledge-intensive profession," says Lorinc. There could be a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 workers in the emerging field by 2018.