Time has come for national big-data strategy, tech leaders tell governments

OTTAWA — Tech leaders are challenging the federal Liberal government to get serious about reaping the rewards of one of the next big frontiers in the information revolution: big data.

Canadian CEOs and academics have been pushing Ottawa for months to develop a national strategy for harnessing data’s burgeoning power — an approach advocates say will pay dividends on everything from boosting economic growth to improving health care.

And the pitch — in meetings with both the Ontario government and with senior federal officials, including at a recent roundtable in Ottawa — is starting to gain traction, said Benjamin Bergen, executive director of the Council of Canadian Innovators.

“We’ve begun to see fruitful conversations with the governments,” said Bergen, whose group is chaired by former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

“I think government is beginning to wake up to really some of the concerns that the CEOs are laying out in terms of needing to build a national data framework.”

Rapidly expanding technologies like artificial intelligence depend on vast amounts of high-quality data and the expertise to properly analyze it and use it. The potential benefits cut across sectors — from optimizing industrial processes, to improving the detection and treatment of disease, to exporting the resulting expertise abroad.

But the big-data prize lies on the other side of some privacy and sovereignty minefields, demanding a thoughtful and careful approach: just last month, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a European-wide data strategy.

Canada — despite being a small country relative to the EU, the U.S. and China — is well positioned to be a legitimate global data player, especially in industries where the country already has an advantage, such as agriculture, mining, infrastructure and health care.

Experts also believe Canada has an edge because of its expertise in AI.

Sachin Aggarwal, the CEO of Think Research, has been among those promoting the idea of a national data strategy with the government.

Aggarwal, whose company uses data to help doctors, nurses and pharmacists make decisions on how best to treat patients, said there’s a huge amount of data generated as a result of billions in public spending in areas like health care.

“The public is not capturing the benefit of the data that’s generated,” he said. “We consider it as something almost as a necessary evil to be stored, as opposed to a valuable input — the single most-valuable input to the next generation of health technology.”

In last year’s federal budget, Ottawa committed to developing a national IP strategy, which is still in the works. Bergen said he’d be very pleased if the upcoming budget includes a similar promise to create a national data strategy.

“There is a role for the federal government to help Canada become a global leader in data — just like we’re doing for innovation and (intellectual property),” officials for Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said in a statement.

“As we determine the Canadian response to the question of data, our government will continue to have discussions with Canadians on the opportunities and challenges we face when it comes to data, new technology and a rapidly changing economy.”

It’s important to have a plan to enable companies to gather, share and analyze data as a way to optimize their operations and cut costs, said Ian MacGregor, president, chairman and CEO of North West Refining Inc.

“We should be doing that at the speed of light because this world is moving — it’s not like you get to wait around and think about it,” MacGregor said in an interview.

“I wish I was 48 instead of 68. This is like the opportunity of a lifetime and I’ve never seen a chance for Canada to be as dominant in anything that’s as important as this.”

Care must be taken to navigate privacy and consent concerns, particularly when it comes to areas such as health data, he acknowledged. But the country can move faster when it comes to industrial data, which could be as basic as the readings on a temperature gauge, he said.

Canada isn’t in a position to compete with the big players in the consumer-data space, like Google and Facebook, said MacGregor. Instead, he recommends focusing on primary industries “where we fight above our weight,” such as power generation, power transmission, farming, oil refining, energy, mining and water.

MacGregor’s company is constructing a $25-billion refinery in Alberta — one of the biggest industrial projects in the world — and he says the plant will have 25,000 sensors that will each collect new types of data.

The sensors, he added, will provide new domestic opportunities for Canadian data experts and he’s planning to establish an open-source data library.

Even experts not part of the CCI pitch are arguing for data frameworks.

Alan Bernstein, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, supports the idea of an approach that zeros in on the specific needs of different data sets.

Bernstein’s institute is overseeing a $125-million federal strategy, announced in last year’s budget, to develop talent and research in AI and deep learning.

He agrees that there’s potential for major economic payoffs from big data, particularly when it comes to health data.

“The technology is there, the computer memory is there and now with AI, which was a made-in-Canada invention, the way of analyzing that data is here,” said Bernstein, who believes private and public sectors can work together.

“We need the political will to harmonize how we collect, store and access data.”

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