Data-driven minds descend on Anchorage
It's been hard to miss for anyone who spent time in Downtown Anchorage the past week, but others may not have noticed one of the premier computer science and artificial intelligence conferences in the world is in town.
For the better part of five days a markedly young crowd of computer scientists and data analysts is streaming between presentations at the city’s Dena’ina and Egan event centers.
The Association for Computing Machinery’s 25th Conference on Knowledge, Discovery and Data Mining has consumed virtually every square inch of both from Aug. 4-8.
Conference co-chair Vipin Kumar acknowledged in an Aug. 6 interview that Anchorage is not a typical city to host discussions about high-technology innovation but also noted that the conference, known as KDD, was recently in Halifax, Nova Scotia, among meetings in Sydney, San Francisco and Beijing.
His fellow co-chair Ankur Teredesai said it was a family trip to Alaska eight years ago — the first trip with his young daughter — that largely drove him to pitch for holding KDD here. As is often the case with first-time visitors, he was taken aback by the state’s natural features.
Teredesai also noted that conference organizers wanted to move away from a solely business-driven agenda.
“It was fascinating to me to see what would happen if 1,500 to 2,000 data scientists converged on this city and shared in that spirit of the importance of the environment and climate change,” he said.
Kumar added that the computer and data science industry as a whole, not just the conference planners, has historically had a single commercial problem-solving focus that is just starting to change.
“We thought Anchorage would be a really good place because — what’s a better way to get people to think about certain issues than to bring them to where they matter the most and you can see them the most?” said Kumar, who chairs the University of Minnesota Computer Science and Engineer Department.
Anchorage’s Chief Innovation Officer Brendan Babb, the local KDD co-chair, said having individuals as influential in the data science industry as Kumar and Teredesai actively championing for Anchorage as a place to host the conference was an immense help.
Still, Babb admitted to being “a little bit surprised and bewildered” when the choice was made nearly three years ago.
“There’s some unique data to Alaska and its great to have some of the best minds in the world taking a look at it and sharing what they know. Everyone’s been incredibly generous and excited to be here. It’s been fantastic,” he said.
Teredesai, a computer science professor at the University of Washington Tacoma and co-founder of the advanced health care analytics firm KenSci, also said the group received “tremendous support” from the folks at Visit Anchorage, who spend much of their time recruiting national and international trade shows and conferences to the city.
Visit Anchorage spokesman Jack Bonney said the city is a practical place to hold an event with global participation, as Anchorage is within a nine-hour flight from the vast majority of the world’s population centers.
“In the eye of a meeting planner we’re a very cost-conscious option,” Bonney said.
According to Visit Anchorage, hosting the KDD conference will generate roughly $4 million in additional economic activity in the city.
Babb said that city officials hope the exposure will encourage some KDD attendees to return north permanently.
“We’d like to snag some as they visit here and have them relocate to Anchorage,” he remarked.
Based on the response, he might be on to something.
Kumar said KDD organizers generally expected to attract 1,500 to 2,000 attendees to Anchorage, but the actual response astounded them.
“We had 3,200 people register and a couple hundred more knocking on the door asking, ‘can we get in?’” he said.
Those 3,200 or so attendees came from 51 different countries, according to Babb.
It’s believed to be the largest professional gathering the city has ever hosted.
And while the North Slope oil fields or the fishing grounds of the Bering Sea seemingly share little with Silicon Valley, the men stressed that the research done in their industry is not only applicable, but essential, to the future of Alaska’s industries as well.
Teredesai recalled that one of the first lessons in a primary textbook used by computer science graduate students, entitled, “Pattern Classification” could’ve been drafted on a fishing boat.
“It’s quite fundamental and everybody uses it,” Teredesai said of the book. “If you open the first chapter the first example in that book to teach someone pattern recognition is actually to teach them to learn to classify the differences between a salmon and a sea bass.”
More directly, there have been numerous presentations on the applicability of current data science in resource management; for example, how to use satellite imagery to combat illegal high seas fishing, Kumar said.
The leaders of Alaska’s oil and gas industry have also long-discussed the need to advanced technology and data analysis to remain globally competitive in a traditionally high-cost operating regime.
Teredesai noted further that the ability to process large amounts of data in highly compressed timeframes is paramount to the supply chain and logistics industry, which are important parts of the Alaska economy, whether it’s mobilizing for a remote construction project or part of the global cargo trade.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the fifth-busiest air cargo hub on the planet.
“The entire Amazon supply chain is driven by the algorithms that are published and reported in this conference,” Teredesai said.
Kumar added, “If you’re in industry and you’re not paying attention to this area you are losing out to your competitors. You can’t afford to ignore this technology.”
Babb continued that the work done at firms like Teredesai’s KenSci is helping reduce the cost of health care and improve the effectiveness of telemedicine delivery, which has major benefits for rural Alaska communities lacking access to large health care facilities.
Teredesai also said he thinks the exposure KDD will give Anchorage and Alaska will encourage more activity, and possibly investment, in the data science realm here. That is, if the city and state make the proper investments as well.
He called investing in higher education “a no brainer.”
“I understand balancing priorities but it is in these type of hard times that we have to make sure that our longer term goals and visions have to be protected. So, making sure that places of innovation, places to access education like universities are funded at the appropriate level,” Teredesai said. “Even high schools and elementary schools — taking money away from education and putting it to something else may solve the short-term problem but it creates more problems in the long run.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].