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Chaos theory expert offers insights on ‘big data’

Big data is the next big thing. Those who make sense of all our cash register tapes and online surfing habits — and find the patterns in our behaviour — are in huge demand by the retail and finance sectors.

It takes big brains to tackle such projects, which is why IB1 higher level math students were treated to a special visit from Erik Jensen ’95 on April 16. He recently earned his PhD in chaos theory from Queen’s University. He spoke to the students about careers related to math including engineering and statistics, and other workforce trends.

“Through their educational positioning, students can be prepared to take advantage of trends such as the demand for statisticians who can mine big data,” says Jensen. He spent time reviewing course selections to ensure students were enrolling for appropriate foundation subjects. As an example of the use of big data, he offered two interesting applications.

“Statisticians are needed to make sense of all the information from cash register tapes,” he says. Broadly speaking, once patterns are established merchandise can be displayed to greater effect. He cited an academic journal anecdote about a British Columbia retailer who was able to discover a correlation between diaper and beer sales on Saturday night.

“That’s because young fathers were going home to watch hockey and drink beer, and they were picking up diapers at the same time.” To exploit this, a retailer bundled both items at a prominent point of sale. Not surprisingly, sales shot up more.

Jensen also pointed to the fact the finance sector has 100 years’ worth of stock price records and the same time frame for market conditions. “With the computing power available, we’re able to test those investment strategies to see how they’d work over a different historical period.”

There’s no doubt big data breathes fresh life and relevance into the somewhat dry reputation a statistican’s career has historically enjoyed. Thanks to Jensen and judging from the interest students showed, such emerging career paths look most intriguing.

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