Sunday, October 31, 2010

Of Cold Temperatures and Warm Hearts in Edmonton

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the two Alberta meetings were truly inspiring. The Edmonton SAS Users Group (eSUG) has quickly grown in size and in engagement over the past few years and given the handshakes and smiling faces I saw at last week's meeting, the sense of fellowship and familiarity amongst the SAS users is growing just as quickly.

I must admit that upon arriving, my joints did start to creak like the Tin Man in 'The Wizard of Oz'. No, I wasn't trying to get an early start on Hallowe'en... although I will neither affirm nor refute any rumours of the lengths I will go to in order to satisfy my sweet tooth. Rather, it was the -12C temperature and snow which was falling through the air that caused my body to seize. My first taste of winter since... oh, last winter. I must admit, I wasn't prepared. However after a brief adjustment period it actually became quite refreshing: pleasant, really. I have a good feeling there's much more where that came from in the near future like it or not.

Earlier I alluded to the sense of familiarity between attendees at the user group meeting. I had a good feeling upon arriving at the meeting that this would be the case. A few members of the SAS community joined the eSUG LinkedIn group which had been fairly quiet up until that point and the eSUG Facebook group - as it was rightly pointed out to me by one of the contributors - actually had several commenters besides myself: a nice positive in these early days! I hope we'll see more activity in both places as we begin to offer more and more valuable content for Edmonton users. I was further buoyed by the knowledge that at the time, almost 80 people had taken in the video interview I conducted with guest speaker Marje Fecht. Given her reception in Calgary the day before, I was quite sure the Edmonton audience would be just as enthusiastic. All the signs pointed to a fantastic meeting, and I wasn't let down.

If one individual can personify the temperment of this group, it would have to be Doug Dover. The President of the group, Doug is hardworking, personable, dedicated, approachable and considerate. He demonstrated why he's been instrumental along with the other executive committee members in helping to grow and bring together the SAS user community in Edmonton. Doug arrived at the meeting with an enormous box full of agendas, evaluation forms and the other staple of a meeting: 100 notepads and pens. The box also held the prizes traditionally awarded at random by way of conclusion as well as speaker gifts for the 2 guest speakers. Sadly, the box didn't contain a few of the most important elements of the meeting. Longtime eSUG supporter and executive committee member Rick Watts was missing his first meeting in 5 years as he was under the weather, and his wife Liz was staying close at hand. Neither did the box contain the voice of Doug Dover, callously stolen by illness a few weeks earlier and mysteriously missing since.

Doug asked to introduce the meeting regardless of his vocal challenges, with one specific request. He held up two cards he had bought and asked everyone to come up at the break to sign them. They were get well cards for Rick Watts from the eSUG community. The break did see a steady stream of attendees coming to the table to sign the card, a real testament to the strength of the sense of togetherness of the group. Here's to you, Rick.

I also couldn't help but remark that the eSUG group had (almost) reached the 100 attendee level! Large groups of friends and strangers clustered together around circular tables and exchanged pleasantries and contact information. This is in no small way thanks to the work of a fantastic executive committee. Taking a little time out of their schedules to help me co-ordinate local presenters, reach out to their colleagues about the meeting and to address other details is of immense assistance. Frankly, it would be difficult to pull off meetings successfully without them! Thanks a million, guys.

My final thoughts on the meeting:
- the presentations were of course tremendous. Marje Fecht once again fostered robust discussion through her talks, and local SAS guru John Kirtz of Snowy Owl software almost had too much to share with his demo and presentation on ODS statistical graphics and the graphics template language new in version 9.2. For those of you unable to attend, have no fear: the presentations will be made available here imminently.
- it was great to see SAS users of all different levels at the meeting. I myself chatted with someone who was a re-energized lapsed SAS user, a woman just starting out with Enterprise Guide, two potential presenters for SAS Global Forum, a discussion around social media resources from a SAS perspective, and a few technical discussions of a variety of types to boot! It's always great to converse with users on the ground, and I sure did get to do a lot of it.
- post-meeting, I think we may have experienced a first. Our traditional user group executive committee lunch was held at what has to be the most inland lighthouse in western Canada; a surreal experience on the outskirts of the Prairies!

I mention on the LinkedIn group page as well as in the Facebook group that I have a set of notes which were left behind at the meeting. I'm happy to scan and send them to you if they're yours: I'd hate to see all the work go to waste. Connect with me, and they're yours again.

Thanks again Edmonton for a great meeting. It was wonderful to meet and see so many of you and I'm very happy to see the group growing closer together even as it grows larger.

Next up for me: the return to Quebec City! Mais oui, I'm headed there and back in a single day for lunch, a user group meeting, dinner, and a flight home. What a whirlwind! I'll be sure to have more in the coming days.

Friday, October 29, 2010

New Friends and A Growing Community: The CSUG Experience

How do I sum up the experiences I've just had succinctly? Well, those of you who are regular readers know that I am rarely succinct. So I suppose I'll just let it all out, as I normally do.

I'm sitting at the Calgary airport waiting to board a flight to head back to Toronto. These two Alberta-based meetings were truly excellent in terms of energy and engagement. For the sake of doing both justice, I'll speak to each of them in individual posts. Let's start in Calgary, shall we?

Around 30 people attended the meeting on Tuesday at the SAS offices in Calgary. On the logistics side, I need to acknowledge a very important person in my world: Ms. Jessica Saviskoff. Jess always goes above and beyond in terms finding outstanding venues and providing amazing support through logistics and registration. A cheese plate at a user group: really? AMAZING. The users notice, comment and appreciate these touches.

The meeting itself featured my good friend and SAS legend Marje Fecht. Marje is a real dynamo. Her presentation skills are second to none, and her SAS knowledge is beyond extensive. Nowhere was this more visible than in the CSUG meeting itself: questions were flying, white boards were being written upon and the room was buzzing!!! In fact, the demand for Marje's talks was so great than she connected immediately with 2 individuals who required the presentations for projects they were working on at that time. She was more than happy to oblige! Her talks - on optimizing SAS coding and bridging the gap for programmers struggling with Enterprise Guide - will be posted today here. Beyond the presentations, the success of Marje's talks was rivalled only by the tremendous engagement on the user side.

One of my goals in building, supporting and connecting the SAS user community across the country is to engage people who haven't been aware of the richness and value of connecting in our world. Perhaps this is because they're new SAS users, or perhaps it's because they didn't have any insight into the options that were available. I was very pleased that two of these individuals chose to help support the Calgary community by joining the executive committee. Thanks, Mussie and Malcolm!!! We had a wonderful lunch conversation about SAS, how we can support SAS users in Calgary through social media, and much more. I can't wait to get rolling with you gentlemen on planning the next meeting.

My final thoughts on Calgary: what wonderful engagement through social media. I have a new friend, Asif, who began following me through Twitter in mid-meeting! He's already made some suggestions around content for the next meeting, and we'll certainly dialogue about it further. The CSUG LinkedIn group has seen a jump in members, and I'm excited to start delivering great content to them. This is the true value and power of social media in my opinion. We can now carry on our conversation beyond the 2 meetings a year. We can support each other, help each other grow professionally and really start to build each SAS users personal 'brand'. And what a valuable brand it is!

Coming up this evening: my thoughts on the Edmonton meeting. Perhaps I'll even post some pictures from my day-trip to Banff afterwards: would you guys like to see what a wild herd of about 150 elk can do to a golf course? I'd be happy to share it with you.

More this evening after I touchdown in Toronto, but for now, see you soon Alberta!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

To Alberta!

As I sit here at Pearson Airport in Toronto, I'm grinning from ear to ear. Perhaps it's because of the long-overdue free WiFi that's available at my home airport... but more likely, it's anticipation of the Alberta user groups which is giving me such glee.

Featuring Marje Fecht - SAS legend and good friend - these meetings promise to be extraordinary. If you haven't met Marje or heard her speak before, you're in for a real treat. She truly is amazing. To get a sense of her and what she can bring to the table, have a look at the YouTube video interview I recorded with her a few weeks ago.

Tuesday's meeting of CSUG at the Calgary offices (details can be found here) is causing me minor anxiety... for all the right reasons! With 40 people registered, I'm worried we won't have enough space for everyone. No problem: I'll hang out the window by my fingernails if I have to. This prospect frightens me greatly not because of the height, but because of the cold (I hear there was snow on the ground in Calgary this morning: yikes!). I'm going to be delivering my 'SAS and Social Media: What's in it for Me??!?' presentation for both the Calgary and Edmonton groups and if the Greater Toronto Area groups are any indication, the presentation should hopefully be well-received. At the very least, I hope it stimulates some robust conversation.

On Wednesday, Marje and I will be in Edmonton, where registration has almost hit 100 for the eSUG meeting! It's hard to believe that a few years ago, the executive committee was down to a solitary individual and the group was having a tough time coming together. Amazing what the power of the SAS community can achieve when it has a common goal and direction. I hope I can capture some of this energy and sense of common purpose at the meeting and really give our social media initiatives a boost of supporters.

Following the meetings, I'll be taking an extra day and a half to relax in nearby Banff with Marje and her husband Rob. I've never been to Banff, but I hear it's gorgeous. Something tells me I'm really going to enjoy sitting in an infinity whirlpool trying to decide what's bubblier: the champagne in my glass, or the water in the tub. Ah, if only we could all have such tough questions to answer all the time, life would be grand, no?

I'll have feedback from Calgary within a few days, and on the horizon, I see 'Quebec City: The Return!' as an upcoming post...

Hope to see you in Calgary or Edmonton!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stand & Be Counted: Data Miners Weigh In On the Long-Form Census Debate

I had high hopes for the Data Mining Forum on Wednesday, and I wasn't disappointed. I was absolutely fascinated by Stephane McGee and Obaid Rahman's presentation on how statistics are used in the insurance industry: incredibly appropriate fare for World Statistics Day! The 100+ attendees were buzzing with questions as we pushed deeper and deeper into break time. It's always great to see such interest generated out of a presentation: great job, Stephane & Obaid!

Victor Zurkowski then told a story of how he came to be aware of the possibilities of net lift and return optimization. A slow smile spread across my face as a slide of the SAS Tech Report was splashed across the screen. Edited by Waynette Tubbs (I highly recommend following her on Twitter, by the way: she always seems to have interesting things to say) it's full of SAS tips & tricks, news and developments in the SAS world and a whole host of user support options to boot! In no small way is our own insights newsletter a reflection of this resource. It was a mention of net lift in Waynette's editorial of an issue of the Tech Report which generated his interest in maximizing net lift and return, and he applied the concept in a fascinating way... you can find out more once his presentation is posted!

I'd been looking forward with baited breath for the panel discussion. As an admitted data junkie, I've been a little too obsessed with this topic since it came to the media's attention in June. In fact, the panelists and executive committee of the Toronto Data Mining Forum could easily attest to this by sharing the four pages of background resources I provided to help prepare for the discussion. A little overkill, perhaps.

At any rate, the Managing Director of Redwood Data Sciences, Mr. Chris Osborne, skillfully directed questions around the loss of long-form census data to members of the direct marketing, financial services, health information and consulting verticals. We hope to make some of the highlights of the discussion available soon, so stay tuned!

The presentations are being cleaned up a little as we speak and should be posted sometime next week on the Toronto Data Mining Forum website. If you can't wait, I've posted my social media presentation on SlideShare within LinkedIn: feel free to have a look, I welcome your feedback.

Next up for me: a week-long trip to the west. Calgary and Edmonton, I'm incoming! To get some insight into our guest speaker - the legendary Marje Fecht - feel free to check out this video interview I conducted with her a few weeks ago.

Thanks again to the fantastic executive team of the Toronto Data Mining Forum. They are truly emblematic of the sense of community and support we've been striving to build between groups of data practitioners. Without their help, the presentations and panel discussion would not have been as compelling. Thanks once again, team!

Until the next time, I'd like to present the same question here that I posed to the Data Mining LinkedIn group. Will your organization be impacted by the potential loss of demographic data caused by making the long-form census voluntary? If so, how? Let's not limit it to your own organization either: what do you think some of the ramifications might be?

I look forward to your thoughts!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What Superpower Would YOU Choose?

This was the question which occupied the 42 attendees at the Golden Horseshoe SAS User Group meeting on Friday morning during their networking break. As I walked around the room speaking with people, I caught snippets of SAS-related conversations being discussed with as much passion as the icebreaking topic. Champions of a variety of abilities struggled to convince their peers that their power provided the most advantage, for example, the convenience of teleporting versus the majestic power of flight. At the same time, the utility and ease of use of macros was a hot topic in certain corners as well!

I myself argued for invisibility for my superpower... how great would it be to go anywhere, do anything? Hours of operation would be meaningless: I could hop a flight to Paris, sit in an empty seat unnoticed, and drive the poor security guards at the Louvre absolutely batty as I set off alarms on a self-guided, private tour of the museum after hours! Given my deep love of archaeology, paleontology and history, I might be there for quite some time.

While we couldn't agree upon a universally-desired superpower, one thing I think we all can acknowledge is that yesterday's meeting was extremely successful. I was so pleased to see members of the Golden Horseshoe community connecting with each other at the meeting, and even more pleased to find a few messages waiting for me in the Golden Horseshoe LinkedIn Group. I'm optimistic that I managed to hit some of the right notes during my 'SAS and Social Media: What's in it for Me?!?!?' presentation, given the feedback I've had already. Speaking of which, I've posted that presentation in .pdf form on LinkedIn: if you'd like it or have questions, feel free to connect with me!

I'd like to single-out Debbie Weisensee of McMaster University and Ron Kaine of Bell Canada for their amazing presentations as well. Debbie reprised the talk she gave at TASS, once again opening up the hood and demonstrating how McMaster is using SAS for reporting, analyzing and distributing information. The demo went extremely well, and I think more than a few people were impressed by what she was able to do! In his presentation, Ron Kaine made it clear that as a business user of SAS, he enjoyed leveraging the power of the analytical and reporting capabilities of Enterprise Guide. In what will hopefully be the first in a series of small talks, Ron demonstrated how a commonly utilized procedure - PROC FREQ - could be run through Enterprise Guide, and why. Great stuff, Ron! These presentations will be posted this week on the GHSUG website for those interested in more information. Better yet, join us at the spring meeting on April 15th, 2011! That gives you plenty of time to figure out which superpower would best suit you.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and I'll be posting mid-week to give you feedback around the highly-anticipated Toronto Data Mining Forum!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

World Statistics Day Meets Toronto Data Mining

Sometimes, if we step back and take a moment, it's easy to appreciate how disambiguous the universe can be. As many statisticians will tell you, synchronicity occurs all the time in the world around us: unique cause and effect layers upon unique cause and effect, weaving a complex tapestry of correlation and interaction between seemingly disparate variables. I've often felt the thrill and shiver of discovery when exploring data in this way... and I find that the same principle can be happily applied to next week's Toronto Data Mining Forum.

As you might imagine, planning user group meetings requires a lot of thought and collboration in particular around logistical issues such as dates, times and venues. Planning for this fall season actually began in June! I can assure all of you that while I would LOVE to take credit for having had the foresight to suggest that October 20th - World Statistics Day - was the ideal day for a data mining symposium, but sadly, I cannot. There's that conspiratorial universe again... and this truly is a fortunate accident of synchronicity. Who better to celebrate World Statistics Day with than a room full of some of the best and brightest data miners in the greater Toronto area?

The date and sense of occasion play a distant second in terms of the most compelling of reasons forattending this meeting. As you can see here on the Toronto Data Mining Forum webpage (an opportunity to register for free appears with the agenda), we have a topical and intriguing morning of data mining-themed discussion to be delivered to you for your digestion!

Many of you may be aware that the Government of Canada recently made a decision to repeal the mandatory long-form census. As data miners, this must raise some eyebrows in concern and cause cold sweats to break out on a few foreheads. What will be the ultimate outcome: will we see no negligible change in the quality and amount of public data? Or, will this have negative effects on planning for social assistance programs, sociodemographically-reliant programs, marketing campaigns, and other data-driven initiatives? How about the health industry: will this impact their ability to administer programs and processes which are heavily data-driven? It's an exciting topic which I think lends itself extremely well to this forum.

I'm very pleased to announce that we'll have a very strong panel of senior data miners to help explore this topic. Featuring representatives of the financial services, marketing intelligence, health and business analytics verticals, I'm really, REALLY excited to listen in! I hope that you'll be able to join us and lend your voice and opinions to the conversation as well.

In addition to the panel discussion, I'm also thrilled that Obaid Rahman of Intact Insurance will be giving the group some insight into how statistics are used in the insurance industry. We don't often have insurance-based talks at our user group meetings, so don't miss this presentation. Finally, Victor Zurkowski will be referencing some of his own work at one of the major banks in his presentation on maximizing net lift and return.

I'll be in Hamilton tomorrow for their user group meeting and reporting back on it shortly. I do hope that the amazing synchronicity which happily married the Toronto Data Mining Forum with World Statistics Day also means that you and I will connect on October 20th as well!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

En Route to Steeltown North!

I don't know about you folks, but Thanksgiving has to be one of my favourite holidays - in terms of food for sure! I like to think of it as a dry-run for the huge family feasts which inevitably define the December holiday season around my household. This years' lessons learned: you can never have enough mashed potatoes and gravy, yams and cinnamon-flavored apple slices are a heavenly combination, and nothing - but nothing - beats a long walk on a beautiful cottage trail to take the edge off of tryptophan overload. I hope you had a great long weekend remembering all the people in your life for whom you are truly thankful.

High on my list of people I'm thankful for in the SAS world are the amazing individuals behind the Golden Horseshoe SAS Users Group (GHSUG). This innovative and approachable executive committee have consistently delivered exceptional value to their attendees, and the meeting taking place this Friday, October 15th, will be no different, I'm sure! Meeting out of the ArcelorMittal/Dofasco offices on Burlington St. East in Hamilton (you can find a map at the bottom of this page), this small but tremendously engaged group always features some of the most enjoyable and informative presentations in the SAS world... and the conversations which take place afterwards are truly inspiring. These are also some of the most accessible SAS user group meetings for individuals new to the SAS world. Graduate students are often featured presenters, and this is balanced by presentations from the manufacturing sector by SAS users with over 20 years of experience on average! Truly, it's the best of both worlds.

In fact, GHSUG is one of the leaders in terms of nurturing and growing the SAS user community. The executive committee members support new presenters by mentoring them through their build process: making suggestions, giving hints, and being generally supportive. It's also a forum for brand new SAS customers to get a sense of what the user group community offers. I recall that a year ago, one of our sales executives sent representatives of a new SAS customer to the meeting. Brand-new to the SAS world, their questions were quite broad and general. The other attendees and executive committee not only made them feel welcome and addressed all of their questions, but several individuals offered to assist the group beyond the meeting with some areas of confusion. It's this spirit of collaboration and support which makes me happiest: SAS users helping other SAS users, there's very little more rewarding in my world than when that type of connection is made.

If you're in the Greater Toronto Area and would like to benefit from the outstanding connections which can be made at GHSUG, feel free to check out their webpage for agenda details and an invitation to register. Remember, it's always free to attend!

The one thing my post-Thanksgiving stomach is NOT looking forward to right now? The traditional massive lunch with the executive committee at King's Buffet following the meeting. Oh, my aching stomach...

Stay tuned for a post later this week with more detail around the exciting Toronto Data Mining Forum taking on October 20th at the SAS offices.

Friday, October 1, 2010

SAS, Hockey and Prairie Life

What do these three things have to do with each other? Hockey fans are definitely awaiting the onset of the new NHL season, and the Winnipeg and Sasktoon user groups are rapidly approaching: but other than that, what's the connection? Speaking personally, these words trigger one of the earliest memories I have of my early days here at SAS Canada.

My colleague Tim Trussell - who formerly occupied my role - is a pretty amazing guy. Sharp as a knife and young as our sun, Tim shines just as brightly in the SAS universe. In my early days, I looked up to him immensely for his ability to offer presentations to user groups of a slightly different flavour. It's great to have case studies. Insight into how SAS is used in banks, universities, health organizations and government branches is always valuable and interesting. But Tim added an interesting wrinkle, one which I've tried to adopt in my day-to-day work here at SAS: fun.

Yes, fun. It's fun to play with data. It's even more fun to analyze and derive insight from it! True, this is my technical side talking, but I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a thrill of electric excitement run up my spine when opening a raw data set for the first time... oh boy, my inner SAS-user is definitely coming out to play!

I bring up the connection with Tim and the prairies because he delivered one of the most interesting presentations I've ever seen a few years ago at the Saskatoon and Winnipeg user groups. Entitled 'Selecting NHL Teams Using Linear Regression With SAS' , this talk married two of Tim's great passions together in one, fun-filled presentation. Tim demonstrated complex statistical processes and models based on actual National Hockey League data . This basically opened the kimono on his hockey pool selection strategy! Given that Tim is always at or near the top of his pools, all of you hockey junkies out there may want to give his presentation a look before the launch of the season next week.

Better still, join us in Saskatoon and Winnipeg on October 13th and 14th respectively for the user group meetings. We have dynamic agendas for each, featuring SAS Canada's Rob Wilson with an updated version of his very popular 'tips & tricks' presentation, and a variety of local presenters. I'd also like to mention that my friend and colleague Jamie Farnell, SAS' Education Program Manager for colleges and universities, will be attending and presenting as well. For all of you University of Saskatchewan and Manitoba readers, I'd highly recommend connecting with Jamie! He will be able to give you good insight into the recent SAS On Demand for Academics initiative, which provides complimentary SAS software to teaching institutions which qualify. He'll also be delivering some great content around how to get the most out of social media as a SAS user, a presentation build by yours truly!

I hope everyone has a great weekend, and that you hockey fans are strapped in and excited for the start of a new season. Hopefully, with Tim's help, you'll be able to achieve success in your own hockey pools this year... and if you want to say thank-you, I understand he's very partial to ginger-flavoured beer.