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Harnessing big data: Polytechnique Montreal recruits renowned data scientist

Creation of the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Data Science for Real-Time Decision-Making, Canada's largest


“We are witnessing the beginning of a new revolution, for information technology but also for industry,” observes Professor Andrea Lodi, holder of the new Canada Excellence Research Chair in Data Science for Real-Time Decision-Making, the biggest chair in Canada in the field of “big data” and operations research, launched today at Polytechnique Montréal. This revolution is being driven by the combination of data science and operational research, which Professor Lodi’s chair is set to spearhead. He envisions creating solutions that will help organizations interpret the enormous volumes of data generated online by their customers, their partners and all other players in their economic environment, in order for them to make the best decisions in real time.

Exceptional funding for work that will have a strategic impact on the Canadian economy

The Canada Excellence Research Chair in Data Science for Real-Time Decision-Making, which will bring together researchers from Polytechnique Montréal, HEC Montréal and Université de Montréal, is receiving funding of about $22 million over seven years: $10 million will be invested in the project by the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, $10.6 million by Polytechniqueand its campus partners and $1.4 million by industry partners.

In addition, the Ministère de l’Économie, de l’Innovation et des Exportations du Québec will provide the project with financial support. The amount will be announced soon. This is the first Canada Excellence Research Chair at Polytechnique Montréal and the sixth in Québec.

“The Government of Canada is committed to supporting world-class research,” says Ed Holder, federal Minister of State for Science and Technology. “Professor Lodi’s appointment will contribute not only to strengthening Canada’s ability to use and interpret big data, but will also foster innovation in fields as diverse as communications, traffic systems, electricity networks and data warehousing.”

For his part, Dr. Ted Hewitt, President of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, notes: “Canada is at a crossroads as regards finding the best way to manage and analyze the incredible quantity of existing information that is able to benefit society. Professor Lodi’s arrival will help reinforce Canada’s leadership position in managing big data and their powerful applications.”

More than a year of searching universities all over the world to find the chairholder

The proposal for the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Data Science for Real-Time Decision-Making is a joint initiative of the three institutions that make up Campus Montréal: Polytechnique Montréal, HEC Montréal and Université de Montréal. As soon as approval from the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program was received, Polytechnique began searching universities all over the world for a future chairholder. It took more than a year to find the perfect match: Professor Lodi.

This young Italian researcher, a professor in the Department of Electrical, Electronic and Information Engineering at University of Bologna, Italy, is recognized as one of the best in the world in using mathematical optimization and so-called “big data” — a term for any collection of data sets so large or complex that they become difficult to process using traditional processing applications – for decision-making. His innovative, multidisciplinary approach in mixed-integer linear and non-linear optimization has produced new models and algorithms to quickly and effectively process large quantities of data from multiple sources.

From Bologna to Montréal, setting out to conquer data

While he has to leave the beautiful city of Bologna, Professor Lodi is enthusiastic as he sets up house in Montréal. “How could I say no to an offer to lead a Chair that is entirely devoted to my field of research, on a campus that is home to such a concentration of operational research specialists?” He says he is thrilled to join an independent institution like Polytechnique that is entirely focused on research and teaching in engineering. “I think that engineering researchers’ needs and work methods are better understood in this kind of environment. Having worked with the CIRRELT (Interuniversity Research Centre on Enterprise Networks, Logistics and Transportation) and GERAD (Group for Research in Decision Analysis) teams in recent years, I already knew almost all the optimization specialists at the three establishments that make up Campus Montréal, which will facilitate our communication and make for productive teamwork.”

Big data: a mother lode for businesses

There is currently an explosion in the volume of digital data, and the pace is accelerating. For example, according to an IBM estimate, in 2016 online data exchange should surpass a zettaoctet, or one billion times the annual capacity of a domestic hard disk. This mind-boggling tide of data nonetheless represents a goldmine of strategic information – if they know how to extract and use that information, often in real time.

“Ten years ago, the issues for businesses were about obtaining and storing data. Today, technology has solved these problems, and businesses are now encountering an even more complex challenge,” explains Professor Lodi. “The data generated online are quickly reaching enormous volumes, they’re not homogenous, and they come from various sources: exchanges of messages, images and videos between users (e-mail, social media, etc.), purchase transactions, geolocation and more. They also arrive on various different platforms: servers, computers, smartphones, and so forth.”

The Chair’s objective is to develop mathematical and IT tools that make it possible to convert data into knowledge and value in real time so that organizations can make opportune decisions at every point along the innovation, management, production and marketing chain. The Chair aims to develop solutions that work with high-performance algorithms and that operate on various platforms, including cellphones.

“Our solutions could affect every sector of the industry that uses optimization,” Professor Lodi points out, noting three industries where using data for decision-making in real time could profoundly change economic models:

• The health sciences industry: At a time when public health budgets are being slashed and health standards are increasingly rigorous, this sector could greatly benefit from solutions for optimizing healthcare by focusing them on the patient. Improved patient data analysis could make it possible, among other things, to better anticipate medication and care needs, to more precisely measure treatment efficacy, and to more effectively manage medical teams.

• The energy industry: With predictive data analysis, since the data are made up, among others, of information provided by smart meters cross-referenced with other information such as weather data, electrical production levels at a given moment, and so forth, it is possible to get a better handle on energy consumption needs and to form reliable smart networks, all while lowering costs.

• The transportation industry: As increased user mobility creates ever-growing pressure on transportation networks, sometimes bordering on the suffocating, transportation operators need to optimize the use of their networks. Aggregating data provided by GPS systems, cellphones, surveillance cameras and more may help to better understand travellers’ movements and behaviours. This could be used for the purpose of, for instance, allotting resources more effectively, but also regulating traveller flows by using mobile applications to present travellers with the best options available to them depending on the traffic situation.

Campus Montréal,
a world hub for operational research

Together, Polytechnique, HEC and Université de Montréal are ahead of the pack in the field of operational research and data science, particularly with their groups such as GERAD and CIRRELT, which form a solid foundation of expertise, already serving as a reference point for a large number of organizations worldwide.

“We are very pleased to welcome Professor Lodi in our team,” says Christophe Guy, Chief Executive Officer of Polytechnique. “The new Canada Excellence Research Chair in Data Science for Real-Time Decision-Making led by this brilliant researcher will further enhance our campus’s already impressive level of expertise in the fields of operational research and data science. This positions us among the most fertile environments in the world for the multidisciplinary collaborations that are necessary for developing new technological tools and new usage methods for big data.”

Training future data science specialists

The Chair will make it possible to train the next generation of data science specialists, who will be able to master the scientific, technological and economic issues emerging from the big-data explosion. Their multidisciplinary skills and their understanding of business issues will make them a labour force highly sought-after by employers from every sector of the economy who wish to transform their decision-making processes.

About Polytechnique Montréal

Founded in 1873, Polytechnique Montréal is one of Canada’s leading engineering teaching and research institutions. It is the largest engineering university in Québec for the size of its graduate student body and the scope of its research activities. With over 43,000 graduates, Polytechnique Montréal has educated nearly one-quarter of the current members of the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec. Polytechnique provides training in 15 engineering specialties, and has 265 professors and more than 8,000 students. It has an annual operating budget of over $200 million, including an $80-million research budget.