Notes From #BigDataMN

Analytics conferences tend to be held in places like Orlando or Las Vegas, where it’s sunny and warm all of the time and there are copious incidental pleasures to fill the off hours.  I can’t speak to the incidental pleasures of Minneapolis in January, but warm it is not; peak temperature on Monday had a minus sign in front of it, and that’s in Fahrenheit.

Nevertheless, a sellout crowd for MinneAnalytics#BigDataMN event filled the rooms at the Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis.   MinneAnalytics is one of the more visible regional analytic user groups, and their events are well-organized and content rich.

Vendors present at #BigDataMN included the usual suspects, including IBM, EMC, Teradata Aster, Cloudera and several others.   SAS was conspicuous by its absence, which is noteworthy because MinneAnalytics is operated by the Twin Cities Area SAS Users Group.  It seems that SAS does not wish to appear at events where R is discussed favorably.   Those crafty strategists at SAS corporate headquarters know a threat when they see it.

At least a third of the presentations featured open source analytics.   Some highlights:

  • Erik Iverson, chair of the local R User Group, presented two excellent overviews of R.  The second of these, an introduction to R basics, drew an overflow audience of all ages; about 90% of these, by show of hands, had no prior experience with R.  In his first presentation, a balanced “flyover” of R from a business perspective, Erik made the excellent point that prospective analysts entering the labor force today have all grown up with R; and so, by inference, we can expect that perceived R learning curve issues will decline as this cohort matures.
  • Winston Chang introduced RStudio‘s new Shiny server for R web applications a tool that gives the lie to the notion that R is suitable for academic research but little more.  This presentation had some impact.  As I stood in the back of the room, I could see a number of participants download and install RStudio then and there.
  • Luba Gloukov of Revolution Analytics offered an excellent interactive demonstration of how she uses Revolution R together with YouTube and Google Maps to identify and map emerging artists.  This was a fun and lively presentation.  One does not often associate the words “fun” and “lively” with an analytics conference.

Mark Pitts from United Health offered a balanced overview of SAS High Performance Analytics, based on his organization’s ongoing assessment of HPA and alternatives.  Mark nicely presented what HPA does well (it’s extremely fast with large data sets) together with its limitations (functionality is limited relative to standard single-threaded SAS).  Mark did not mention cost of ownership of this product, which exceeds the GNP of some countries.  🙂

The format of this event — which provides most speakers with slots of twenty to twenty-five minutes — is excellent.  The short time slots prevents bloviation, and if a speaker is less than inspired the audience doesn’t have to decide between a catnap or checking email.  Conference presentations should be like speed dates: get in, make your point quickly, and if there’s a fit you can follow up afterwards.

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