SQLBits V: Keynote and Sponsor Talks
In November the fifth SQLBits conference took place in Newport, this time around the format differed slightly in that the regular 'training day' took place on a Thursday, there was a paid conference day on the Friday (only £99 for early takers) followed by the usual free Saturday conference. If you've never been to one of these events they're well worth attending and it's great to be in the company of so many people who understand the sort of environment you work in and who freely offer help and advice. More as a reminder for myself I thought I'd put together my personal highlights and little bits of information I learned whilst I was there. The Keynote was given by Donald Farmer and showed took us on a journey through the challenges of BI from the perspective of a businessman from the 1920s who shared many of the same problems that we do in business today, it was quite an interesting angle and an amusing talk all-round. The address culminated in a demonstration of PowerPivot, a new BI technology centred around fetching large sets of data into a cube sitting behind Excel then allowing the users to perform Excel-like calculations as well as joining the data to other tables/spreadsheets. I believe that the tool is aimed at analyst-level users but the whole idea of putting large data sets in the hands of users (in the demo it was a million rows) and expecting them to manipulate it seems a little like a backwards step - isn't the heavy lifting meant to be done on the server? Don't get me wrong, if the demo was anything to go by I'm not too worried about performance - more concerned that many users just aren't equipped to (and don't want to) perform this level of analysis. I'll watch with interest but colour me sceptical.
On both the Friday and Saturday I attended the Sponsor talks by Solid Quality Mentors, both given by Mark Whitehorn and both excellent. From past experience the sponsor talks vary between product demos and general advice but Mark's talks took a "let's think about something different" approach. Friday's talk was about Social Data and considered what sort of social data large companies such as eBay and Facebook collect, how they can get the most out of it and in some cases why it can be considered more valuable than transactional data. We also had a bit of a discussion around the moral implications of collecting social data and whether or not it was legal or ethical in certain circumstances to use the data for marketing purposes or perhaps sell it on.
In addition to working with Solid Quality Mentors Mark is also a lecturer at the University of Dundee where there will soon be an MSc in Business Intelligence, and Saturday's talk was based around some academic research he had been involved in (published in Nature). The research had involved manually collecting data from around 5,000 plant specimens originally sourced by John Stevens Henslow, a friend and lecturer of Darwin at Cambridge. The study used modern BI techniques including data mining and even a Bing Maps mashup to demonstrate that Henslow had been studying variation before Darwin had arrived at his theory and was quite likely to have been a strong influence on Darwin's own thoughts on the subject that made him one of the world's most famous scientists.