Industry and academic leaders gather at Big Data summit

By MaryCate Most

A message pops up on a smartphone screen: “Twitter would like to use your current location.” At that moment, with the simple tap of the screen, the owner of the phone has become a contributor to big data — huge sources of information that scientists and companies compile to use in their research, marketing plans and business strategies.

On Friday, the University’s Research Park hosted the Big Data Summit at Champaign’s I Hotel, which gathered leaders in big data to discuss future applications and analyses in this field.

“The purpose of this event is to really start a discussion with companies who are on the Research Park and with other companies … about how they can utilize big data and data analytics,” said Laura Bleill, assistant director of external relations at the University’s Research Park.

Big data has become an increasingly popular topic in science and research in recent years, said Michael Welge, Research Park big data executive-in-residence. In the past two years, 90 percent of world data was created, which calls for more data storage and analytics, Welge said.

“There’s been data analysis going on for 25 years,” Welge said. “The data set sizes because of the numbers of sensors placed in the field and the number of applications on your phone are producing vast amounts of data that describe behavior and characteristics — that can be very valuable to companies.”

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In the Research Park, companies have started to use these massive data supplies to make their businesses more lucrative. For example, Anheuser-Busch uses its lab in Research Park to analyze consumer habits and trends in order to create more effective marketing plans or to predict the number of products consumed by each region of the country, said Bud Analytics Lab Director Rafael Pinterich.

“With big data we can go into a deeper relationship with our consumers and build connections with consumers,” Pinterich said. “Not only do we connect with consumers, but we experience a part of the consumer life.”

Pinterich spoke to academics and industry leaders during a panel on social media at the summit, specifically referring to one instance in which data from social media allowed the Budweiser company to make an even larger profit.

“We just found through data analytics and social media that there is a huge correlation between hockey and Budweiser,” Pinterich said. “Normally there is a peak during the goals — people celebrate and they are willing to drink — so that was a big opportunity for us, and we needed to take advantage of that.”

Based on information gathered from social media sites like Twitter, Budweiser crafted a new marketing plan that targeted hockey fans and predicted where extra amounts of Budweiser would be purchased so the company could ship extra product to those areas at a faster rate, Pinterich said.

Laura Frerichs, director of the University’s Research Park, hopes that the University will be able to capitalize on big data expansion by encouraging companies to move to the Research Park and take advantage of the big data processing services that the University offers, she said.

“From our side, we see this as part of our economic development mission,” Frerichs said. “In showing Champaign-Urbana and the University as one of the premier locations where data analytics expertise has existed for a long time because of computer science, (National Center for Supercomputing Applications), informatics and statistics … We hope companies will consider our community as one of the best in the country.”

The University offers a number of resources for companies and researchers: scholastic prestige, the NCSA, which is the University’s supercomputing center, and relationships with leading companies, Frerichs said.

“This is a very rapidly growing field and a fast-moving train,” said Shaowen Wang, professor of geography and geographic information science. “One of the biggest challenges is that we are missing workforce and that is where the University of Illinois is in position to be a major contributor. We train that workforce that our industrial partners might need very quickly.”

Frerichs said the NCSA’s ability to do massive calculations with big data makes it a tool worth utilizing.

“It happens that we have some of the biggest and strongest supercomputers in the world,” Frerichs said. “Every major corporation knows the University of Illinois has the big supercomputers, and that certainly, when making a decision to go anywhere in the world, will make them come to the University of Illinois.”

MaryCate can be reached at [email protected].