President's Dream Colloquium on Engaging Big Data

In the Spring 2016 President's Dream Colloquium, Simon Fraser University students and faculty explored the foundations and applications of “Big Data”. Recordings from this engaging lecture series can be found by clicking on the speaker links below. 


Engaging Big Data
Recently propelled by opposition to the very large private and secretive databases for marketing and national security, critical theory is now contesting how size matters less than interpretive capacity, transparency, or the capacity of evidence-based decision making to adapt to the partisan inflection of every day relativist reasoning. In a world which apparently digitizes everything but not everyone, there is a battle for access, and pressing need to develop the skills for analytic and interpretive reasoning, to mobilize big data in the public interest.  Yet the applicability of new analytic resources and processes is constrained by economic, legal and socio-political factors.

Given the increasing amount of digital information, many disciplines are bringing together data from difference sources in an effort to generate new knowledge, weigh and mitigate risks, contribute more effectively to public policy and mobilize for positive social change.  The trick is to understand under what conditions and why this search may be effective in the next five to ten years.

The key questions addressed during the series were:

  1. What is big data?
  2. What can be done with it?
  3. What should be done with it?

Within the context of these questions, this seminar aimed to demystify the hitherto “privileged knowledge” of computing science, behind classification, detection and algorithms.

This series looked at issues related to the design and technology of big data, epistemological problems around datum evidence, analysis and meaning, ethics and regulation of its practices. The mission was to seek to lever power from private to public spheres, through everyday applications. Cases focused on how individual citizens, civil society organizations today can effectively access, interrogate and use large public databases to advance social, economic and political change.

At the same time, the series highlighted examples of how Big Data and associated technologies pose risks for the “Little Guy”. Areas of particular interest included health, safety, the environment, aboriginal heritage and public policy. The topics and associated discussion were designed not only for an interdisciplinary graduate student audience, but also for a community audience where industry and community members can learn more about the Big Data items that make their way into various forms of media and shape public discourse and issue mediation.

Composed of three modules, this President’s Colloquium featured high profile guest speakers who are thought-leaders in their fields. Presentations from all guest speakers were open to the public, along with an associated discussion session.

  • The Foundations of Big Data module, led by the School of Computing Science, introduced students from a wide range of technical backgrounds in humanities, social sciences, sciences and applied sciences to the fundamentals of database design, algorithms, programming, machine learning, and visualization in the context of the social, political and corporate factors shaping their use.
  • The Investigations with Big Data module, led by the Vancouver Institute for Visual Analytics (VIVA) participating with SFU researchers from Health Sciences, Criminology, Interactive Arts and Technology, and Political Science explored specific cases of David-and-Goliath narratives about how community based big data sources can be used to help solve real world problems. 
  • Finally, the issue of what should be done with big data will be the focus of the Significance of Big Data module. Led by the School of Communication, this section invited a series of panels and experts to share their insights into the ethics of big data and its impacts on citizens, especially how to think like Sherlock Holmes (Konnikova, 2013) and improve the powers of public deduction.

SFU Professors Catherine Murray,  Fred Popowich and Peter Chow-White were responsible for the overall direction, content and grading of the seminar.


The President's Dream Colloquium on Engaging Big Data was generously funded by:

Corporate Sponsors

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Other Corporate Sponsorships
Organizations interesting in sponsoring specific invited-speaker events should contact Fred Popowich,