By Tim Gabel and Michael Rappa, special to LTW

Editor’s note: This is the fourth “Executive Insight” column, a weekly feature for Local Tech Wire as part of its partnership with the and Tim Gabel is vice president for Survey and Computing Sciences at RTI International, and Michael Rappa is director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics and a professor at N.C. State University.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – Back in 1958 when RTI International was founded in Research Triangle Park, another local company, IBM, shipped the world’s first one-megabyte data storage unit. It weighed a ton and cost about $1 million, or one dollar per byte (remember, that is in 1958 dollars). So cumbersome and expensive was electronic data storage that only a handful of companies and government agencies could afford it. For everyone else there was paper and the file cabinet.

Needless to say, when it came to data, the world was a different place a generation ago. The task to collect, store and analyze data was arduous and costly. Not surprisingly, good data – data that could be used to make decisions – was a scarce commodity.

Fast-forward 50 years, and we can see how much life has changed. Data is everywhere. It is cheap to collect and much is collected as the byproduct of digital processes in everyday life – from credit card swipes to clicks around the Web. The low cost of storage means the amount of data generated each day grows incessantly, pouring into databases and filling vast data warehouses. We literally walk around with thousands of megabytes (or a few gigabytes) of data in our pockets in the form of a thumb drive or mobile phone.

The abundance of cheap data provides myriad opportunities to better understand the world around us, and to make well-informed decisions. Businesses of every type are looking for ways to extract information and value-laden insights from the raw data they possess. Executives know that accurate, timely, and thoroughly analyzed data is at the core of effective decisions, and the key to unlocking the wealth of opportunity is “advanced analytics.”

Advanced analytics – an umbrella term used to describe an expanding collection of software tools, analytical methods and applications – has emerged in recent years to address head on the challenges we face in managing and analyzing the data we collect.

Organizations are moving beyond simply using data retrospectively – decision-making is becoming “predictive,” using analytic results to anticipate and set a course for the future. And, it is not just those companies seeking to grow the bottom line. The application of advanced analytics extends to virtually every sector of the economy.

Examples from several disciplines emerge looking at the work of RTI International:

  • Analysts are working with municipal law enforcement officials to use high-power text mining approaches to cull through mountains of transcript data from 911 calls. These approaches use patterns of words and phrases, along with structured data such as call type and call time, to identify potential terrorist and criminal activities.
  • RTI’s Modeling Infectious Disease Agents Study, or MIDAS, hosts a supercomputing cluster that supports a network of RTI analysts and researchers from around the United States who are developing models that predict the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases such as H1N1 (swine flu).
  • RTI experts in health care financing policy work closely with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to mine claims data for insights. By analyzing tens of millions of anonymous medical record entries, researchers aim to better understand which treatments or procedures are most likely to result in positive health outcomes.

Another Triangle neighbor, SAS Institute, is the world’s leading analytics solutions provider. Around the globe, companies use SAS tools everyday to perform an ever-increasing number of complex analytical tasks, in some cases to solve problems in real-time, such as detecting credit card fraud. Meanwhile, IBM’s announcement to create a 4,000-person business analytics consulting unit and to acquire SPSS – the latest $8 billion in analytics related acquisitions – underscores the deepening local investment that has made the Triangle a hotbed of advanced analytics.

The future is limited only by our ability to educate a new generation of analytics professionals who have the knowledge and skills needed to apply these techniques. N.C. State University is leading the way with its Institute for Advanced Analytics. The Institute’s innovative educational program is the first of its kind. Designed to equip students with the tools and methods of advanced analytics, the MSA is an intensive 10-month experience that immerses students in a custom-built multidiscipline curriculum that addresses the specific needs of employers. With full classes and 95 percent job placement, the MSA has proven to be popular with both students and employers alike. The Institute is a magnet drawing companies to the region in search of analytics talent.

With the growing demand for advanced analytics, the Triangle is poised to become the world’s leading center for analytics software, expertise and education.

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