Big data presents bigger opportunities for the province’s software developers
How data analysis is shaping Alberta’s software development industry
by Geoffrey Morgan
City planners that have to pick an appropriate location for a new ambulance or fire station usually face a long and tricky process. The new station can’t fit directly inside a residential neighbourhood due to noise, and it needs to be an appropriate distance from existing stations to serve the highest number of people in the shortest amount of time.
The city of Calgary decided to leave this problem for the experts, and contacted the people at Darkhorse Analytics. Dan Haight, co-founder of Darkhorse, says his company makes money doing applied math for business. For the city, Haight’s team developed a system that analyzed all of the factors required to efficiently locate a fire hall, and then presented it to Calgary’s city managers. But they didn’t just present a series of spreadsheets to the city. Haight’s team built a software program that displays how a station’s placement on a map will affect response times.
More importantly, Darkhorse didn’t just deliver a product. The company’s software allows city managers to virtually drag a proposed station around the map to see for themselves how that will affect emergency response times. “One of the key ways to convince decision makers is to let them play with the data themselves,” Haight says.
Darkhorse’s software is part of a larger trend that is unfolding right across North America. Software development companies are building systems designed to help companies understand increasingly large amounts of data. From ambulance routes in Calgary to oil rig drilling applications in the Bakken, software is having to use and analyze larger and larger amounts of data. Alberta companies like Darkhorse are cashing in on the trend.
Mark Bennett is the vice-president of product development at Edmonton-based Yardstick Software. He thinks the trend toward larger volumes of data will continue. Bennett says that new databases are already being deployed to handle so-called “big data” projects in the U.S. Databases like Riak, Amazon Dynamo, Google Big Table and Mongo are all used to process data collected in operations where thousands of machines are working simultaneously. “Over the next five years,” he says, “you’ll see companies and services gain a competitive advantage by developing technology and products to manage and find value in this torrent of data.”
One Alberta company that handles a torrent of data is Pason Systems. The Calgary-based company has built a $330-million-per-year business by making drilling data make sense. Last year, the company’s software recorded data on more than 1,400 drilling rigs deployed across Canada and the U.S. Its software collects data from a number of different points on an operating rig, including the pressure down the drilling hole, the gases that escape from the hole, the rate of penetration and the volume of drilling mud flowing into the hole. The company’s software then collects this information and delivers it to Pason’s clients in real time.
John Mortimer is the senior manager of Pason’s data centre and applications. “When you look at the amount of data from a single well, it’s not that big,” he says. But if a drilling company has 300 active rigs all using Pason’s software, and the company is analyzing seismic and geological data using the drilling information, then the amount of data collected can get big in a hurry.
Historically, Mortimer says, the data his company collects was only available at a rig site. In the 1990s, rig data would be burned onto a CD and physically transported back to a company’s head office. But times have changed, and today that rig data is all aggregated through a Pason-run web portal. As a result, data collected in the field can be presented to executives at a drilling company’s head office seconds later.
At Yardstick Software, Bennett says the need to see data as fast as possible is another trend that’s shaping the direction of companies working in the software development industry. “Just as businesses find value in processing massive volumes of data,” he says, “the ability to collect and analyze data as close to real-time as possible will become increasingly valuable.” He says real-time data is changing the way people work by enabling “new kinds of collaboration and processing across the network between people, and between systems.”
One software program being developed at Darkhorse Analytics will likely change the way city planners interact with councillors and emergency personnel. Darkhorse is building an iPad application that lets a user zoom in on any intersection in the city and find the most recent data available on the number of traffic accidents at that location. Haight says the application will give city managers the ability to respond to queries from city councillors or emergency personnel and make decisions about traffic accidents using the most current data available.
The same collaborative process is happening in the oil and gas industry. Mortimer says Pason’s technology allows geologists and drilling engineers in Calgary to provide their input on drilling decisions that were once made exclusively by the driller at the rig site. “There are a ton of variables that can potentially cause the drilling process to go wrong,” Mortimer says. “Having access to real-time data allows you to evaluate how you’re drilling relative to your planned well and if any event comes up that is not anticipated, then you’ll be able to make a better decision about it.”
It won’t end there. To keep their edge, software developers across the province will need to keep developing faster, easier and more efficient ways to present data to customers. “People are bringing their consumer expectations to work,” Mortimer says. Clients no longer want to be tied to their office computer if a problem arises at a rig site. So Pason’s customers are now able to log into the company’s data centre on their mobile phones, because as he says, “There is this demand that data should be available everywhere.” If the past is any indication, it won’t be long before it is.