Without question, big companies in Silicon Valley are collecting and analyzing huge volumes of user data as a means of finding ways to adapt to market changes, optimize their products and, ultimately, increase profits. This strategy works, because these platforms have billions of users globally. How can Canada break into the big data industry, assuming large user platforms are out of reach? Instead of looking at consumer markets for big data success, we should look at industries where Canada is a global leader.
For the last century, Canada has led the world in primary industries such as mining, energy, forestry and agriculture. We have focused on digging, cutting and planting — benefitting economically from the sale of these raw materials. As these industries have grown in scale and complexity they have added modern extraction and processing equipment to improve productivity.
Primary industries have invested more than $50 billion in “simple” sensors, installed in machinery across the country. These sensors feed back basic information such as, “are there rocks on the conveyer belt?” Or, “what is the temperature in the heat exchanger?” While this information is important to the operation of the machinery, it does not provide robust data for big data and machine learning analysis. We need to wake up these sensors by enabling them to constantly communicate their readings directly into an online database. It’s equally important that we start collecting data on a large scale and work together with our large primary industries to fill a national open-source library. This will allow us to collect the types of quality data that start-ups and big data entrepreneurs need to discover the next “big idea” for Canada.
Imagine a national open-source library of sensor data that can promote transformative change in our biggest primary industries by lowering costs; reducing environmental impacts, such as waste, emissions and land disturbances; and improving performance.
Right now, large corporate service providers are beginning to collect proprietary big data to improve their competitive position and are selling their services and solutions back to Canada’s primary industries. It’s essential that Canadian primary industries are convinced that all collected sensor data is open and available to all.
Canada already has one of the oldest, continuously functioning examples of an open-source data framework. In 1938, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Conservation Board — now called the Alberta Energy Regulator — was established to oversee drilling operations in the Turner Valley oil field south of Calgary. It mandated that any business wishing to extract oil or natural gas from the region must report key attributes of geology, production and reservoir performance. This formed the basis of a comprehensive open-source library on Alberta’s natural resources that continues to be relevant today.
As you can see, establishing a large-scale, open-source library of sensor data would be advantageous to all. It will enable large-scale innovations and improvements by both incumbents and newcomers to work with and provide solutions for Canada’s primary industries. The potential is there, waiting for the next generation of Canadians to develop and build large-scale big-data-based businesses. Canada must act now or our competitive advantage will be lost.