Communitech’s Database program to launch satellites, harvest ‘big data’

Collecting  big data from partners in the government, academic, and private sector and finding new uses for it is the new, broader focus for the Database program at Communitech, the Waterloo, Ont. hub geared towards commercializing new technology.

Although the Database program first launched in February under the moniker, “Intelligent Media Networks,” it’s since undergone some pivoting, says Glenn Smith, Database’s program director.

Originally the $6.4 million-dollar program, funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, focused on sharing only data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS). That system features data on the locations and characteristics of marine vessels. However, program organizers soon realized there were plenty of other sources of data, and plenty of other situations where it might come in handy, Smith says.

“What we’ve seen is that as we’re building out for the one data set, what we’re building is applicable to any data set,” he says, adding the Database program can now look at data from other sources, like sensor grid data or open data.

That kind of data opens doors to almost any field, with Database looking at four in particular – the maritime industry, carbon emissions, water management, and information security. Database’s partners in those fields are businesses that provide data services or applications, as well as universities that are researching new ways to leverage data.

That means suddenly, there’s a whole host of new use cases for big data, Smith says. For example, with maritime data, businesses can use it to figure out fishing boundaries out in ocean waters. Other businesses may be interested in monitoring piracy, while still others might want to monitor areas that should be environmentally protected.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Quantum Computing, one of Database’s partners, is using data related to the information security market. It’s currently analyzing that data to figure out how to securely transmit data using satellites.

Or the Water Institute, another Database partner at the University of Waterloo, is working on applying data gathered from remote sensors to forecast sea ice thickness.

(Image: Anthony Reinhart, Communitech). A microsatellite similar to the ones Database will be launching next year.
(Image: Anthony Reinhart, Communitech). A microsatellite similar to the ones Database will be launching next year.

And as another way to gather more data, Database is also working on sending two more satellites into space. There was no firm date on when the satellites could be sent into space, as that depends on when a rocket can take them, but Smith says the launch will happen sometime next year.

In the long run, Smith says he hopes the Database program will result in a full-fledged platform that will connect people who need data to solve problems with people who can provide that data.

“We’ve run into a number of different projects out there that are producing big data,” he says. “But they don’t have necessarily anyone making use of it, or it’s under-utilized. So what we’re purporting to do is to provide a platform that allows for linkages between the needy and those that have.”

However, that plan is still just forming. Chances are, a Database platform won’t emerge until next year at the very earliest, Smith says. The fastest driver of creating a platform like that comes back to commercialization and whether anyone can monetize big data, he adds.

“I think [harnessing big data] will happen more and more, but I think the big ‘if’ here is whether relevant business models can be created,” he says. “That’s what will motivate participation.”

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Candice So
Candice So
Candice is a graduate of Carleton University and has worked in several newsrooms as a freelance reporter and intern, including the Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and the Windsor Star. Candice is a dog lover and a coffee drinker.

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