New Big Data program comes to Lakeshore Campus

The "Who had a Tougher Time Machine" was a piece published by the Globe and Mail last year that used data to compare the financial situation of graduates from 1976-2010 to the the situation of students in 1976. Courtesy Stuart Thompson and The Globe and Mail. The "Who had a Tougher Time Machine" was a piece published by the Globe and Mail last year that used data to compare the financial situation of graduates from 1976-2010 to the the situation of students in 1976. Courtesy Stuart Thompson and The Globe and Mail.

Vick Karunakaran
Biz/Tech Reporter

Humber’s Lakeshore campus will be diving into some digital ones and zeroes just as the city thaws out of its sub-zero temperatures.

The Big Data certificate program launching this May promises to teach media and marketing professionals to learn the new trend sweeping businesses.

Big Data is the collection of all of the data gathered from people and things they do in the world, explained Stuart Thompson.

“Some stories can’t be told unless you used data,” said Thompson, data journalist and multimedia editor at The Globe and Mail.

“The whole idea of data is taking a life of its own,” stressed Ken Dafoe, faculty lead for the Big Data certificate at the Lakeshore campus.

Big Data has wide applications and does not confine to any one sector, he said.

Many businesses are now looking for employees who have a concept of big data and some skills in dealing with it, Dafoe said.

“I usually use data to answer questions that are kind of hard to answer in other ways,” said Thompson.

“There’s a huge potential for investigative journalism based on data,” said Thompson, adding many newspapers now use data to support their reporting.

Instead of simply writing about something, data journalists are using data to support what they are finding, Dafoe explained.

Companies are collecting the digital exhaust we leave behind and using Big Data to help predict where things are going to go, continued Dafoe.

Much of the government data he used was publicly available online, but sometimes Freedom of Information requests are made, said Thompson.

Internet searches are the cornerstone of understanding where data is, and the course teaches students how to find it and what you can do with it, said Dafoe.

According to Thompson, he would scrape, crunch, and wrangle data into interesting stories and visualizations so readers can understand the bigger picture.

Thompson said a project The Globe and Mail did last year was to see whether young adults are better or worse off financially than their counterparts from 1976. The “Who Had It Tougher Time Machine” used analytical data from Statistics Canada to conclude that young Canadians today are worse off, he said.

The digitalisation of data, easier access and the democratization of free tools to manipulate these data have pushed Big Data into mainstream, said Thompson.

When The Globe and Mail analysed Ontario’s sunshine list, Thompson said they built a program to scan hundreds of pages and just get the specific data. The information can then be sorted into useful spreadsheets for detailed analysis.

“From a journalistic perspective, we want more and more data,” said Thompson, but most newspapers are interested in aggregate information from government and organisations rather than private data about specific people, he added.

Google has vast amounts of data that it offers businesses through its service called BigQuery, said Dafoe. For a small fee, Google lets anyone search large data sets and find aggregate information about any topic, he said.

“Whether I like it or not, I am using Big Data,” said Kazi Faisal, professor at Humber’s School of Applied Technology. When people use Google maps to check traffic, it’s Big Data at work, he said.

“Privacy is always a concern,” said Dafoe, but continued by saying it is difficult to understand what that means because so much of what we do is now tracked anyway.

The data mining by data-brokers however is of concern, said Thompson. Where personal data is going and how it’s been collected and what’s being collected is a legitimate concern.

While using Big Data requires technical specialities, he said Canadian newsrooms should focus more on data because there are a lot of missed opportunities.

“There seems to be a lack of educational expertise in data,” said Thompson. But business sectors are starting to wise up and see the potential to use all the data that’s already been collected.

The Big Data program at the Lakeshore campus starts with effective searching methods, said Dafoe. The next step is to show students what to do once they find data and beyond dealing with simple spreadsheet, he said.

The third part of the program focuses on the Big Data itself and extracting information from it, said Dafoe.

“It’s a growing field,” said Thompson. “It has a short history and the potential for it in the future seems incredible.”

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