David vs Goliath - Andrea Lodi’s quest to tame big data

2017/03/29 - Written by Agata De Santis
David vs Goliath  Andrea Lodi’s quest to tame big data
David vs Goliath Andrea Lodi’s quest to tame big data
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Imagine a 40-something professor in a boring university office, in front of a blackboard, with chalk in hand. He is staring at the numbers and equations on the board for a few minutes, maybe even a few hours. Perhaps there’s a grad student in the room, sitting close by, ready to jot down notes at a moment’s notice.

Now imagine that professor being the best of the best in his field, with a multi-million dollar grant at his disposal, and all the mathematicians in all of academia waiting to see what he’ll come up with. That, in a nutshell, is professor Andrea Lodi. Lodi holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in data science for real-time decision-making in the department of mathematics and industrial engineering at École Polytechnique de Montréal. It is the biggest chair in all of Canada in the field of big data.

He is working on developing new models and algorithms that will help organizations process and interpret a large quantity of data generated online by customers, partners and all other players in order for them to make the best decisions in real time, both rapidly and effectively. He is particularly interested in designing solutions to improve the electricity market, rail transport logistics and health-care planning. The chair is a joint initiative of three institutions that make up Campus Montréal: École Polytechnique de Montréal, HEC Montréal and Université de Montréal.

 

“Lodi holds the the biggest chair in all of Canada in the field of big data”

 

Before receiving this position, Lodi was teaching in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the University of Bologna in Italy. Lodi is a leading international researcher in mixed linear and nonlinear programming. He has been – and continues to be – lauded for his innovative and multidisciplinary approach to process massive quantities of data from multiple sources. “I was very happy at the University of Bologna. Montreal has always been an interesting place for me, but I never thought about moving here. But the chair was too good an opportunity to miss,” Lodi explains. 

With a PhD in systems engineering from the University of Bologna, Lodi has earned several awards, including the Google Faculty Research Award in 2010 and the IBM Faculty Award in 2011. In 2005 and 2006, he was a fellow in the prestigious Herman Goldstine program at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York. He has been published in numerous top mathematical programming journals and has served as associate editor for several of those journals.

 

“He is working on developing new models and algorithms

that will help organizations process and interpret a large quantity of data”

 

The Italian community of Canada is also starting to take notice of Lodi’s work and innovation. He was recently awarded the 2016 Premio Venezia by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada. This past September, the chair received an additional $93.5 million grant from the Canadian government. The dollar amount may seem astounding, but not when one takes into account the task at hand for Lodi and his team. How much data is even out there in the universe? Some estimates suggest that the online exchange of data in 2016 alone is expected to surpass a zettabyte, that is, one trillion gigabytes. “In order to build the capabilities, the infrastructure to even do the research, we are talking about training the next scientists and workers in the field,” Lodi explains.

“We need the hardware, the right people in applied science, experts on the applications relevant to the specific industry, and so on,” he continues. Right now, his chair oversees a team of 25 professors and students. Lodi offers a perfect analogy to help comprehend the amount of big data that is out there. A byte is the unit most computers use to represent a character such as a letter, number or typographic symbol. Now let’s imagine a byte is a grain of rice. If we think of large platforms like Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc, and the amount of data that they cover in one single day… well, those grains of rice would cover the whole North American hemisphere. “Now I look at what you can do with all this data,” Lodi adds. And where does he even start? “Ideas still originate on the blackboard with chalk,” he muses. “Then we just have to figure out how to implement them.”

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