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Prof. Paul Young, , PhD, FRSC;  Vice President, Research and Innovation,  University of Toronto

Prof. Paul Young, , PhD, FRSC;
Vice President, Research and Innovation,
University of Toronto

By Prof. R. Paul Young, PhD, FRSC

There is a certain point where some terrific expressions become buzzwords. And once they reach this stage, they lose whatever snap they once had.

Think of ‘granularity’ or ‘paradigm shift.’

The term ‘Big Data’ is getting there. You hear it a lot these days in certain circles.  It’s almost at the point of being used enough that it’s losing the power it holds.

Enter the Southern Ontario Smart Computing Innovation Platform (SOSCIP), which just celebrated its first anniversary.

SOSCIP is a partnership extraordinaire when it comes to using Big Data and high performance computing (HPC) for real-world problems. The initiative includes the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario, IBM, the University of  Toronto, Western University, McMaster University, University of Ottawa, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Queen’s University and the University of Waterloo. 

It was founded in April 2012 with a $210 million investment ($175 million from IBM, $20 million from the federal government and $15 million from Ontario). At the heart of SOSCIP is the IBM BlueGene/Q supercomputer – one of the fastest in the world – which is located at U of T’s SciNet HPC facility. SOSCIP also includes cloud computing and agile computing platforms at Western. And IBM is building a related data centre in Barrie, Ontario that will create 145 new jobs.

Thankfully, SOSCIP is taking Big Data past the buzzword stage and into the realm of reality on two key fronts: enabling research that will improve the world and help our nation to create jobs and prosperity. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

Take Eric Miller, for example. Eric is a professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Civil Engineering and former Director of our Cities Centre. He is a recognized authority on transit planning that will help create more liveable cities.

To that end, Eric and his collaborators are just beginning to use IBM computing technology to create a model that integrates the transit and road transportation systems in the Greater Toronto Area with its built form to allow us to design a future urban region that moves people and goods more efficiently and that increases economic productivity and social well-being.

To do that, Eric needs sophisticated computing technology that can handle these massive amounts of information we have come to call Big Data.

In fact, as he told U of T’s Edge Magazine about the need for computing in his field: “It’s absolutely essential…I’m interested in creating more sustainable transportation systems to benefit our economy, environment and society. It’s important to experiment with models of the transportation system before we make transit decisions that will affect thousands of people’s lives and will mean billions in spending.”

That is why Eric needs SOSCIP’s unique-in-Canada powerful technology. To figure out the way to improve a massive transportation system like that of the Greater Toronto Area, you need computing infrastructure that can handle that level of Big Data.

And if Eric is using Big Data to solve the massive traffic jam or crowded subway car you’re likely to be in within the next 24 hours, then that’s moving Big Data out of the buzzword stage and into reality.

Eric’s project is one of 34 SOSCIP research initiatives that include an increasing number of investigators and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as IBM.

In fact, I believe what is developing is what we can call Team SOSCIP. An integrated force of sharp university researchers and professionals from government, business and SME’s that can pool their talent and resources to really change things for the better in key sectors such as health care, water, energy and the development of even more innovative computer technology.

And part of that change – in addition to the research and the impact it will make – is the ability of SOSCIP to create jobs and prosperity, both directly and indirectly.

Let’s go back to Eric Miller’s research.

His work won’t only result in more and better public transit and road traffic that moves faster.  The impact is broader: those positive changes demand that jobs are created to serve the new model. And cities that are more ‘liveable’ are magnets – for new business and industry, for conventions, for visitors and tourism, for positive growth. And that results in what we call prosperity.

So, now when you hear the term Big Data, couple it with this term: Big Impact. That’s what SOSCIP will deliver.

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