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Industry leaders, academics move to put Pittsburgh at forefront of 'big data' movement

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Dataworks participants

Allegheny Conference on Community Development, Carnegie Mellon University, Draper Triangle, Google, IBM, Innovation Works, Leech Tishman, Management Science Associates, NetApp, Pittsburgh Technology Council, Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, University of Pittsburgh, Urban Redevelopment Authority

Friday, March 22, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Academic, corporate and development leaders gathered Thursday night in Oakland to kick off Pittsburgh Dataworks, the city's first step to promote itself as a hub for advancing “big data” as a business tool and career specialty.

The consortium has an office in the Rev Oakland business incubator but no dedicated staff. It will focus on teaching businesses the benefits of using tools that make sense of fast-multiplying amounts of information, said Bob Monroe, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

Big data, which has emerged as a business buzz phrase, could revolutionize fields from medicine to retail to intelligence through online messages, experts say.

Pieces of data are created every time someone uses a smartphone to search the Internet, updates a Facebook page or consults a global positioning system to find a destination, said Monroe, a member of the consortium's technical board of advisers.

With all that technology use, databases contain thousands of times the information they once did. Although modern devices leave data trails, the pieces are less structured because “they include video, audio, GPS trails, Tweets and Facebook posts,” for example, he said.

Traditional tools for sorting and working with data can't keep up, so companies such as NetApp, a maker of giant data storage systems with a center in Cranberry, are creating more powerful ones, he said.

Carnegie Mellon, seeing a “substantial need from companies that come recruiting” at its business, computer science and statistics program in its humanities college, is expanding its coursework around big data, Monroe said.

IBM representatives in Pittsburgh proposed forming the consortium, which is based on an organization called hack/reduce in Cambridge, Mass.

“Pittsburgh has the right assets: universities and many great companies,” said Jerome Pesenti, chief scientist for big data with IBM.

Reasons to establish the organization include technical training, helping companies use and analyze new databases, and sharing career opportunities.

“The demand far outpaces the supply” of professionals qualified to work in big data, said Saman Haqqi, product director of big data marketing for IBM.

Thursday's event at the University Club featured a Big Data Showcase with initiatives by established and new companies and academic institutions.

Examples: Pitt medical researcher Adrian Lee, with a personalized medicine tool that looks at symptoms, treatment and outcomes for thousands of cases; IBM, with its InfoSphere Data Explorer for data tracking; QuantMD LLC, with a tool for visualizing large medical data systems; and Civicscience, a market research company that polls consumers via websites and social media sites.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or

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