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'We don’t want to create an Internet of useless things'

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Cisco Innovation Centre in Tokyo

Twitter creates one million tweets that can be tracked geographically a day. By 2019, there will be 11.5 billion connected mobile devices in the world. To date, the Canadian federal government has published 200,000 data sets – and that's just one level of government, in one country.

All of this – and more – goes into the big melting pot we're currently calling Big Data.

Monica Wachowicz is looking past colossal numbers and future fears and doing something with all this information. "We're making sense of this big data," she says.

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Wachowicz is the Cisco chair in Big Data at the University of New Brunswick and associate professor in geodesy and geomatics engineering. In her position she has the partners and resources to transform piles of numbers into information that has applications for business and beyond.

Her predictive analytics can, for instance, track tweets and triangulate where people are and what they are doing in real time. Results can be used to make maps based on how we use and see a city, and identify needs as natural disasters unfold.

Her chair position at UNB is the result of a $2-million endowment from Cisco Systems Inc. With the funds, Wachowicz has started the People in Motion lab, which uses a team of professors and students from a range of disciplines – including computer science, social science and business – to create data algorithms that synch up with real-world needs.

The new lab and this partnership are part of UNB's ongoing commitment to encourage entrepreneurship, and marrying it with technological innovation. In 2014, the school was named the most entrepreneurial post-secondary institution in Canada by Startup Canada.

"Dr. Wachowicz is an exceptional addition to our world-class department of geodesy and geomatics engineering and to the network of innovators and change-makers at UNB," says UNB president Eddy Campbell. "Cisco's exceptional generosity will help us remain the engine behind research and innovation in the province."

Cisco is providing resources, including software and access to data, and in return has first right of refusal for any ideas with a potential business application for the company or its partners.

Such algorithms may one day fuel internal customer service approaches or a new Cisco product or service. Or they may get licensed out to a startup that has the velocity and expertise to take a niche idea to market.

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The potential for large and small business for Big Data is huge. Time- and place-sensitive data can help companies understand their customers better and identify new needs. That can be leveraged into innovations in health care, urban planning, finance, tourism and more.

"It's less about tracking something, but it's about understanding when behaviour happens, and what drives it, so we can provide better services," says Wayne Cuervo, director of innovation for Cisco Systems and director of the soon-to-be opened Internet of Everything Innovation Centre at the company's Toronto head office.

The company has invested in a dozen academic chairs across the country that is doing work related to Big Data. The IoE centre, as it's often called, will provide a place for the company and its academic partners, along with others, to meet up, share ideas and develop products and services.

"We're turning away from reductive analysis, just an analysis of history, to turning that into predictive analysis," says Kevin Tuer, vice-president of strategic initiatives at Communitech Hub in Kitchener.

"I see data as being a currency," he says. Players large and small in various industries are trying to leverage that currency and translate it into valuable new ideas.

Many of those new ideas could be disruptive ones – he thinks Big Data will behind future revolutions in business.

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However, ideas in the digital age with the power to change entire industries won't just come out of engineering, computer science, or a company's R&D department, they'll need to be part of collaborations.

Before founding her lab, Wachowicz attended a workshop on Big Data in Washington with experts from a range of academic disciplines. Conversations there convinced her that her expertise in place and time and data were not enough to develop meaningful algorithms. "I realized how much we need multidisciplinary teams. We need to bring in things like the social sciences," she says.

In particular, her team members from the corporate sector make sure that ideas proposed in the lab – a very academic setting – would solve real-life problems and have economic value.

Wachowicz plans on taking full advantage of the new IoE centre in Toronto and synching up and enriching her ideas with those of her academic peers across the country.

Tuer thinks breaking down silos needs to go even further. "The private sector can't lead it, it has to be business, government and academia working together," he says.

Lining up partners, ideas and data is a challenge facing everyone in the digital age. With a corporate partner at her side, Wachowicz hopes to strike that ideal balance between academic innovation in New Brunswick and out-in-the-real-world applicability. "We have to be careful," she says. "We don't want to create an Internet of useless things."

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This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with University of New Brunswick. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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