Math skills don’t add up in the enterprise

VANCOUVER — Canada needs to keep its math graduates in the country if it doesn’t want to miss out on innovations in data mining, according to experts at a conference on math and IT.

Nearly 400 people are gathered at the University of British Columbia this weekend for the annual general meeting

of the Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems (MITACS), which includes speakers like Gilbert Strang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ron Graham of the University of California. A federally funded member of the Canadian Networks of Centres of Excellence, MITACS consists of 230 scientists working on 31 research projects in collaboration with 75 organizations.

Arvind Gupta, MITACS scientific director, says data mining is this year’s conference’s theme, and MITACS-sponsored researchers have been making strides in taking large data sets and inferring information from them through statistical analysis.

Gupta says one example of a commercial use for the research is by auto insurance companies. They’ll be able to analyze the statistical data for various demographic groups, with an eye to finding which groups are the lowest.

“”The insurance companies would like to offer the cheapest rates to the least risky people,”” says Gupta. “”It’s not an easy problem to solve.””

Another problem MITACS researchers are tackling is that of wireless devices, like cell phones, which sometimes drop their connections as users move between repeater stations. With each repeater having a limited capacity and more and wore devices coming into use, capacity is strained. Being a low-margin business, cellular providers don’t want to invest too heavily in infrastructure, and Gupta says mathematics research is developing ways to help maximize the existing resources.

While the research is progressing, Gupta says Canadian companies still aren’t taking advantage of the skills developed by mathematics graduates by incorporating math into their basic research. As a consequence, much of that innovation is heading south of the border.

“”Canada has much more of a mentality of taking stuff off the shelves rather than being the developer of new technology,”” says Gupta. “”If a company wants to be leading edge, they’re going to have to think about the fact that a lot of the innovations coming out in the U.S. are very mathematically oriented.””

Part of the job of MITACS is to educate companies about the value that mathematics can add to their product development. Gupta says mathematics is like a base science, offering a language in which other sciences can be discussed.

“”If you look at the Internet, almost everything that’s done there is very mathematical,”” says Gupta. “”If Canada wants to develop the generation of things that everyone wants to use, then we have to invest in these kinds of skills.””

Gupta says companies need to invest more into basic research and development, and, taking a long-term approach, use mathematics alongside their engineering and information technology professionals during product development.

“”Canadian universities have done a very good job in training math students, but unfortunately too many of them just leave the country with their skills, taking opportunities to go to big research labs in the U.S.,”” says Gupta.

While Canadian companies need to make better use of mathematics research, Evangelos Kranakis, a professor of computer science at Carleton University, says math will also be increasingly part of an IT staffer’s job.

“”The IT jobs are becoming more and more sophisticated,”” says Kranakis. “”There’ll be fewer people doing the work, but that the same time they’ll have to be better trained at what they’re doing. It’s making the jobs for those people more sophisticated.””

While there has often been effort to bring the math, information technology and engineering disciplines closer together, Kranakis says he sees the two groups working in parallel, because they each have something to contribute. While engineering looks for short term solutions, he says math brings a longer-term fix to the table.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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