Monday, October 29, 2012

Breaking Through the Fog in Hamilton

Last week the Golden Horseshoe SAS User Group met in what can only be described as challenging weather conditions.  The fog rolled in thick and deep last Thursday morning which didn't bode well for having all of our attendees make it out to the meeting.  Fortunately, the agenda was well-rounded enough that many of the registrants screwed up their courage and made the trek to the ArcelorMittal offices as planned.

I was in a bit of a fog of my own having arrived late at night the previous evening from the tail-end of a 3 week long road swing. Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Montréal and Québec City were firmly in my rearview but the legacy of the successive trips certainly weighted upon me.  Fortunately, I had one of SAS Canada's best and brightest to keep me company - and help keep me awake - on the drive down the Queen Elizabeth Way highway and around the lake.  Tim Trussell would be delivering a talk on text analytics a little later in the morning but for the moment, he had the task of keeping me talking... and subsequently, keeping us both alive as I drove through the thick fog.  Above and beyond, Tim!

The topics were certainly compelling for those who attended.  Harry Droogendyk discussed using SAS to read Sharepoint list data.  The laughs which punctuated the presentation were representative of Harry's easy-going style rather than disregard for the topic.  I'll admit: I couldn't help but think of how my team leverages Sharepoint in our environment and I was putting our own data and documents in the context of Harry's talk.  I certainly learned a trick or two which I would like to consider implementing here at SAS Canada.

One of the most endearing features of the Hamilton user group meetings is the 'Proc du Jour' - every meeting, one particular procedure is explored and discussed in deep detail to get better understanding of its capabilities and strong points.  The pareto procedure was up this time as presented by Lesley Harschnitz.  I had no idea such a procedure even existed - I always think about the pareto principle in terms of the 80/20 rule... which still applied to this talk.  I really enjoyed Lesley's openess around her presentation as she managed to duplicate her graphing controls (well, almost) in both SAS code and Enterprise Guide.

I always like seeing new faces up in front of the audience offering their perspective and sharing their knowledge.  Amidu Raifu of Brock University shared a great talk from a health perspective around cervical cancer screening practices in the DR Congo.  I always learn a lot from health talks.  In my opinion, health SAS practitioners are some of the best out there.  Not only are their findings potentially life-changing, but the pressure and necessity for accuracy always impress me.  Amidu clearly knew his subject well as demonstrated by his ability to follow-up on the multitude of questions which followed.  I hope we'll see another presentation from him soon.

Finally, Tim Trussell took the stage. Tim is no stranger to the GHSUG group having presented many times and famously challenged ex-GHSUG executive committtee member to a programming vs. Enterprise Guide speed challenge (I'm not saying who won, so don't ask!)  A lot has changed since those days.  Tim has only grown in knowledge and experience and is now the Analytics Lead for all of SAS Canada.  One of his area's of expertise (and there are many) is text analytics.  He offered us a compelling talk around some of the reasons to leverage text analytics and the insights some organizations have derived.  It's nice to know that despite his brilliance,  Tim is still human.  For a brief moment I found some common ground as we both managed to spill coffee on ourselves.  Sigh.

All in all, it was a really good meeting.  I echo the words of GHSUG President Ron Kaine who said that he learned something from each talk which he could use, and that's always the goal at day's end.  I hope that the attendees feel the same way. Congratulations to the whole team for putting together a great meeting and a special nod to new executive committee members Kirby Sinclair who presented on the upcoming NESUG conference and Sueheir Saddik who MC'd the whole meeting. Fantastic job by all!

I have a bit of a respite here and then I'm off to Ottawa in mid-November... you'll certainly be hearing more from me soon.

Until then...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

La Belle Province: Québec User Groups Provide Laughs and Learning

I’m trying to pull my thoughts together after a lightning quick tour through the province of Québec.  It truly was an epic voyage… but I’m fortunate I had a fantastic travelling companion with me for the duration: a man who needs no introduction (except occasionally to himself), Mr. Andrew T. Kuligowski of Florida.

Andy has been a stalwart supporter of the Canadian SAS user groups for many years.  In fact, we realized that there are only a few groups which Andy has not attended! Ottawa, you folks are next… and the last on Andy’s list.  From Vancouver to Halifax, from Edmonton to Hamilton and everywhere in between, last year’s SAS Global Forum Chair has brought his easy, comedy-filled, jaw-droppingly knowledgeable presentations to user groups across the country.  I’ve been fortunate enough to be his faithful travelling companion – and straight man, at times.  I have many fond memories of sharing beers and groans over live hockey (when there was such a thing), discussing the intricacies of SAS Global Forum and mapping out the best aquariums to visit at our various stops.  In short, it’s always a blast to travel with him… and I know our Canadian SAS users appreciate it as well.

First up for both of us: a stop in Montréal, the first time Andy had returned since SAS Global Forum was held there in 2004 and my first stop-in this fall.  I absolutely LOVE Montréal.  One of my closest friends at SAS Canada lives there and it’s always a hoot when I’m able to get together with Sylvain Tremblay – another user group road warrior like Andy and myself.  The Executive Committee is best defined as small but mighty. In fact, they don’t really get smaller!  Mathieu Gaouette and Eric Lacombe have held down co-leadership positions for many years now and have more than competently facilitated a steady stream of gifted local speakers and special guests from many a distant town.  In fact, Andy’s presence in Québec was entirely due to Eric’s dogged pursuit of lining him up for the agenda! In pursuit of this goal we changed dates, we moved venues, we did everything we could to get Andy in front of the Montréal audience.  Mission accomplished, Eric.

In Montréal, Andy truly was ‘the show’.  This was remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, Andy is a pure Anglophone… and the good folks in Montréal and Québec tend to prefer French speakers for obvious reasons. Andy’s content was deemed more than solid enough for the audience: in this case, Andy’s technical prowess more than made up for any perceived linguistic shortcomings.  Plus, as he would later demonstrate in Québec, Andy was MORE than willing to attempt a few French phrases to good effect!  Secondly, Eric and Mathieu were prepared to devote a significant amount of time on the agenda to Andy for the purpose of describing his involvement in SAS user groups, SAS Global Forum and the importance and benefit of volunteering.  This was new territory for any group to cover! 

I think it’s fair to say that Andy more than handily acquitted himself in both respects.  His humour, grace and willingness to engage the audience around their experiences – SAS and otherwise – instantly endeared himself to all.  His presentation schedule was ambitious to say the least. Andy attacked a few of his ‘greatest hits’:  Set, Merge & Update as well as Looking Beneath the Surface of the SASLOG.  We had hoped to fit in his Beneath the Surface of Sorting talk as well but we simply lacked the time.  Have no fear, MONSUG attendees: all of these presentations will be posted shortly in the MONSUG group in the SAS Canada Community as well as the MONSUG SAS Canadawebsite.  We left Montréal having received a very warm reception from the SAS community, which is ultimately the goal of the user groups regardless of language, culture, or any other point of difference. In fact, the user groups thrive the most in areas where differences in community can united through the binding thread of SAS usage.  In this respect, MONSUG was an overwhelming success.

After the extremely warm reception in Montréal – which I think may have calmed Andy’s nerves just a bit – we were off to historic Québec City.  I don’t know if I could have sold the virtues of this amazing city any more to Andy… as regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve previously sung the praises of Québec loudly and consistently. 

Of course no trip to la belle province is complete without food. In Montréal we introduced Andy to the MONSUG-burger.  I could tell you what it is, but I’d prefer you just found out for yourself. Give a brief SAS talk in Montréal and I’ll show you! ;) In Québec City I took Andy to one of my favourite restaurants, ‘Le Café du Monde’. Here we had a great time discussing all things SAS and dining on some of Québec’s finest potages, saumon, macarons et surtout du vin.  These are some of my favourite moments on the road with guest speakers; finding some quiet time to really sit, talk and pick each other’s brains.

After retiring at the Auberge Saint-Antoine – truly one of God’s gifts for travelers such as ourselves – we met up the following day for lunch with the Executive Committee and the user group meeting itself. Here, again, the SASuser community is blessed with a strong, vibrant and dedicated executive committee.  Louis-René Rheault and his team consistently pull together an outstanding agenda which represents both local SAS experts and guest speakers such as Andy.  The meeting itself was a very good one as well. Over 70 people attended to hear Patrice Bourdages give the most unique ‘SAS Global Forum Wrap-Up’ talk I’ve ever seen and our own Sylvain Tremblay delivering a talk around SAS programming techniques.  Of course, Andy was there to reprise his Set, Merge, Update talk once again.

Too soon, I found it was time to leave la ville de Québec.  A quick dinner at possibly the best steakhouse I’ve ever had the pleasure of patronizing and one very full, satisfied and happy Matt was en route to the airport.  Given the smiles, laughter and positive feedback on the evaluation forms, I can confidently say that I believe the SAS community in Québec City felt the same way.

I’m not being facetious when I say that this particular road trip brought together some of my favourite elements of the user group program.  I had the opportunity to work, converse, laugh and relax with two amazing executive committees.  I was also able to observe just how strong the SAS communities are in both of these cities and to take some notes for how to strengthen other groups across the country. Finally, it’s always a pleasure to see Sylvain Tremblay and of course Andy Kuligowski.  As ‘travel buddies’, you tend to become quite close with your fellow SAS presenters… to have 2 of them in one spot at once was truly a great experience. I was in guest speaker overload!

At the end of the day, Montréal and Québec are blessed to have such strong, committed and attentive executive committees working on their behalf and their efforts are truly appreciated.  Not just by me, of course: but by the community at large. There aren’t enough words in either English or French to thank them for their hard work!  I look forward to seeing them all again soon.

À la prochaine, Québec… et merci.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Winnipeg: of Pregnancies, Graphs & SAS Camaraderie

Last Friday I arrived late at night in a rainy, blustery Winnipeg twilight... a little delayed, but happy to be on the ground.  In no small part this was because I was eagerly anticipating seeing friends and colleagues in the friendly confines of the University of Manitoba for the Winnipeg SAS User Group meeting.  And much like the windy weather I arrived in, my short time in Winnipeg was to be as quick, sudden and tumultuous... if only because I was actually on the ground for a mere 18 hours!

I have to take a moment to remark upon something which I don't believe I've ever encountered before at a SAS user group meeting.  Arriving fairly early in order to set-up and say some hellos, I found my eyes wandering around the room.  It was hard to miss that there were 3 or 4 very visibly pregnant women in attendance including one of our guest speakers!  I wondered aloud in my opening address what they were putting in the water in Winnipeg.... it was really fantastic to see so much positive energy in the room, it's hard not to smile when you see so many glowing faces.

Our agenda was a great one once again.  Josée Ranger-Lacroix once again planted a flag in the ground as a rallying point around SAS macros.  Having seen her talk in Saskatoon the day before, I was ready for the audience to be 'wowed'...and I think they were.  The feedback on the evaluations was certainly very positive and I'll be sharing the overall results shortly in the Winnipeg SAS Users LinkedIn Group. 

Rachel McPherson from Manitoba Health followed up with a talk around Dynamic Data Exchange.  I always find these talks fascinating... it's an effective system for moving and restructuring data between Windows applications. Despite the power and flexibility of SAS, we all still live in a Microsoft-wrapped world, there's no denying that!  Rachel demonstrated how she used DDE to create and modify dynamic charts and graphs on the fly in both Excel and Word, and I think the audience appreciated it. As Rachel said, the objective was to learn how to work smarter, not harder... and I think she certainly succeeded in that respect.

Finally, Winnipeg user group President Craig Kasper delivered a fantastic talk around customizing graphs - in this case, pie charts - to adhere to internal specifications. Through a complex mix of code and macros, Craig was able to successfully automate updates on a consistent basis.  Great stuff, Craig!

All of these talks will be posted shortly on the Winnipeg SAS User Group website so that you can have a better idea of the great ideas shared between SAS users.  It's well worth your time!

A special thanks once again to the Executive Committee in Winnipeg: Kevin, Stella, Humaira and of course Craig have done a fantastic job of keeping the strong spirit of collaboration and community alive and well in Winnipeg. I'm already looking forward to my next trip back.

Next up for me: I'm headed to Montréal for the MONSUG user group meeting and Québec for the club d'utilisateurs SAS.  I'm travelling with last year's SAS Global Forum Chair Andy Kuligowski so you can be sure there will be tales to tell!

Until then...

Prairie Winds, Plotting Petrol Points & SAS

I had the good fortune of travelling to Saskatoon last week for the SUCCESS user group meeting.  I absolutely LOVE this community.  To a man and woman they are friendly and welcoming, and exceptionally eager to share their SAS knowledge with each other as well.  In many ways, they perfectly emulate the larger goals of online initiatives such as the SAS Canada Community: to connect SAS users beyond user group meetings for support, camaraderie and collaboration.

I should also point out that Saskatoon is a sentimental place for me when it comes to SAS as it was the first group I visited on the road as a fresh-faced youngster almost 6 years ago now.  6 years: wow. It's hard to wrap my head around just how fortunate I've been to enjoy my work for this time... and though it may sound trite, it really does feel like just yesterday that I was supporting my predecessor Christie Hobley by helping out at registration desks and processing evaluation forms. Between the two of us (albeit with a couple of other amazing maternity leave 'fill ins') we've been involved for the whole program... it's a little stunning, to tell you the truth!  Time certainly does fly when you're having fun.

As I was saying, Saskatoon was the first group I supported and I mentioned this during my 'What's New at SAS' talk during the meeting. We're collecting a variety of stories through our '10 Years of SAS Supported User Groups' initiative in the SAS Canada Community with an eye to sharing these with the greater SAS community through our insights newsletter in 2013.  I reminisced about my first trip to Saskatoon: massive luggage checked in, $400 in cash for customer entertainment... naiveté
personified. Now, I'm a carry-on, credit card warrior! What hasn't changed: many of the faces I see at the meetings.

Some of those individuals were presenting as they have over the last 6 years... and as always, these talks can be found on the SUCCESS website. Brad Zimmer - past-President of SUCCESS and longtime attendee - reprised a talk he gave a few years ago around using SAS as part of a logistics problem, optimally moving gasoline from point to point in western Canada. Given the number of variables being considered in the problem - distances, local costs, reciprocal agreements and more - it was quite the challenge! Brad is a great presenter and easily explained the considerations to a rapt audience.

Another returning presenter was Sabuj Sarker of Saskatchewan Cancer Agency who gave a talk on relative survival and macros. I, for one, am ALWAYS fascinated by survival-themed presentations. The application of this type of work to virtually any line of business - particularly those involving customer churn such as telecommunications and credit card - never ceases to amaze me. I'm fond of saying that SAS users from a health background are some of the most sought after in any industry and Sabuj certainly helped bolster my case with his talk.

Longtime attendee and ardent SAS supporter Dr. Jaswant Singh of the University of Saskatchewan also delivered a great intro-level talk on analyzing complex binary data using SAS. I really enjoyed Dr. Singh's style of presenting. Freely admitting that he was not a statistician nor an expert - but suggesting that he would love to learn from some of those in the room - his talk was a step by step approach to some pretty complex statistical procedures such as logistic regression and just plain old regression. The tidbit which made me smile the most was that Dr. Singh let out that he had tried his talk on his students' beforehand. I hope they were as receptive as our audience!

We also had the 'star' of the show, Ms. Ranger-Lacroix who admirably stepped into the shoes of Laki Kourakis to present on the topic of SAS macros as well as how to ensure system efficiencies. I promised everyone in the room that they would get something out of the talk, and I believe they all did! Josée had many admirers and question-seekers approach her during the break. It was very nice for me to get to know her a little better over the course of our few days together as well; I would certainly welcome the opportunity to travel with her again!

We also had a new presenter from the Health Quality Council. Ying Jiang delivered a talk around statistical process control graphs which I found to be incredibly interesting... I had never given much thought to this particular type of graphing but I immediately saw its utility especially when trying to ensure quality control across a variety of sources. Great job, Ying! As if the talk wasn't enough, she also volunteered to take over as the Program Chair for the SUCCESS Executive Committee.

A word about the Executive Committee if I may. Saskatoon has always been the most organized, orderly and committed group in terms of local leadership.  They have the formula down pat.  With yearly rotation of positions and consistent support from a whole host of individuals, the group is never without guidance and direction from on-the-ground resources in Saskatoon.  I'm exceptionally grateful to all of the individuals who have supported the community.

I'd like to single out Gopinath Narasimhan, the now past-President of the group. Gopi's energy and passion has been infectious in Saskatoon. He has worked furiously hard behind the scenes to ensure that local SAS users were well-represented on the agendas through both delivering topics they wanted to see and getting them up on the stage themselves.  He has been a strong advocate for participation in the group and has become a good friend as well as a colleague. Here's to your leadership Gopi: I can think of few individuals who merit a paid trip down to SAS Global Forum in 2013 more than you!

A special congratulations to the other new members of the Executive Committee. Joining Ying Jiang are Wenbin Li who becomes the Vice President and Eric Wang who steps into the President role. Along with continuing members Alomgir Hossain who retains his Local Arrangements Chair position and incumbent Brent Burlingham who continues as Technical Director, a very strong team has been assembled. I'm looking forward to working with all of them moving forward.

After Saskatoon, I winged my way to Winnipeg for their meeting last Friday.  My thoughts on that and more will be coming up shortly.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Interacting on the Catwalk – Modeling Takes Centre Stage at the Toronto Data Mining Forum

This morning the Toronto Data Mining Forum convened at the SAS Canada offices for our semi-annual meeting.  I’ve come to really look forward to these get-togethers for a few reasons.  First, the agendas have become more and more compelling over the past few years and this has been reflected by steady growth in attendees.  In fact, one of today’s presenters had delivered a talk about 5 years ago in the early days of the group to a room of about 20 people…  a far cry from the roughly 130 individuals who packed the room today!  I’m also very happy that the Forum allows me an opportunity to get together with a very strong, very dedicated and very forward-looking Executive Committee.  Without taking anything away from other user groups, the Data Mining Forum consistently addresses the pressing issues in industry today. Today’s meeting featured a strong focus on modeling in several forms.

The topic of modeling can be either extremely complex.  There are many considerations when considering how variables interact: what is important, what isn’t, what has a marked effect on something else, what is skewing results… and these are just some of the more obvious challenges!  Given the broad scope of this topic I was glad to see that today’s meeting really covered most of the bases.

Our first presenter was Ryan Zhao. Ryan is a really interesting person.  He described to me how he had been originally inspired and connected through the auspices of both the Data Mining Forum and the SORA seminar series in the early days of his career. This in no small way factored in his decision to give something back to the data mining community… not only through
his presentation on realizing ROI through uplift in marketing campaigns which he delivered today, but by providing training for new analysts through his business. As Ryan explained the ‘analytical gap’ he was hoping to fill, I couldn’t help but admire his vision and passion for data mining and analytics in general. This passion was certainly reflected in his talk which was very well-received by all.  As a marketer myself, it was very gratifying to see a talk which lend some credibility to the complexity of the task before us on a daily basis… so thanks for making me feel better about myself, Ryan!  I suppose I should pay you for the unintentional therapy session.

Following Ryan, Tim Gravelle of PriceMetrix took the stage. Tim is no stranger to the user group stage having presented previously at the Toronto Area SAS Society and preparing for talks at both the North East SAS User Group (NESUG), a larger regional conference based in the United States… and potentially at the upcoming SAS Global Forum in San Francisco.  His comfort certainly came through in his talk!  Tim discussed the
importance of interactions and how they can help explain behavior in a significant way… but only if they’re given the proper weight and if they’re treated with the respect they deserve.  Using a a traditional SAS programming method, Tim illustrated how deep this subject can get; his knowledge and wealth of experience – especially when he brought to bear his former experiences at Gallup – were well-expressed.  Over lunch, we pressed Tim a bit on his view on the upcoming election south of the border… I won’t reveal his opinions or perspective – that would be cheating – but I can honestly say I have a better view of the upcoming decision for our cousins to the south. 

Finally, SAS Canada’s own Lorne Rothman took the stage to discuss
survival analysis using Enterprise Miner.  He admirably surged ahead in his talk though time was his enemy.  A lengthy break and many questions had cut into his time.  Lorne had no issue ensuring that the large audience received full value for staying the whole length of the meeting.  His talk was comprehensive and direct, referencing the previous presentations as well as showcasing his own expertise with data mining principles and Enterprise Miner.  It’s always a pleasure to have Lorne present – especially in front of a larger group – as there are invariably many of his former students’ in the room. I’m glad he was able to talk at length about a subject area he knows well and for which he feels great passion. Thanks for yet another great talk, Lorne!

I mentioned earlier that the data mining group is very forward-looking.  I should also mention that they are a discriminating, open audience who are always wiling to voice their praise – or damnation – for any given agenda.  This meeting was no different.  A few takeaways for me: definitely work with our IT department to investigate sound dropping towards the back of our large meeting space. It’s no fun for people sitting in the comfy chairs at the back to strain and stress to hear the presentations!  On a similar note, I’m going to investigate sourcing out a hand-held microphone for questions.  Rather than having the presenter repeat the question, this would make things exceedingly clear for all.  I’m very pleased that the overall reviews of the meeting were very favourable.  This can be a bit of an intimidating community; the level of expertise and the massive amount of knowledge in the room can be daunting to say the least. Having said that, there are few more tightly-knit SAS communities to be found anywhere across the country. It’s a privilege to contribute to their professional growth in any way!  If you’d like to see the talks which were given today, feel free to have a look at the
Presentation Archive on the Toronto Data Mining page; you’ll find the latest talks posted at the bottom.

Next for me: I’m off to Saskatoon and Winnipeg for their user group meetings. It’s a whirlwind of a week to be sure… especially with transitioning 3 different time zones in a matter of 2 days. As long as I remember what city I’m in – no guarantees – I’ll be back soon to fill you in on my experiences.

Until then…

Friday, October 12, 2012

Programming, Social Media & JMP: Calgary User Group Covers the Bases

As I sit at the airport in Calgary, I find it very easy to write about the wonderful experience I had at today's user group meeting.  What a great community to visit: a more engaged, inquisitive and knowledgeable SAS group would be hard to find... and I see a lot of them! The Calgary SAS User Group (CSUG) is certainly one in a million.

A special thanks has to go out to our great presenters. Wayne Levin of Predictum once again offered a tremendous talk on JMP software. From demo'ing the capabilities to making fun of me, he had the audience intrigued and in stitches the whole time.  There was clearly a great interest in the power of JMP. Lots of questions around the functionality and the capabilities of the software, and Wayne didn't disappoint.  He delivered on every question quickly and easily, moving between demo and discussion with grace and ease. He was more than a worthy recipient of the SAS lava lamp and static ball I gave him as a 'thank you' gift.  Even more impressive: he was running back and forth between conference calls the entire time. Given his excitement level, I gather those calls went well... fingers crossed, Wayne!

Chuck Mohamed is a name familiar to many 'in the know' SAS users in western Canada. He has done great work for us previously by offering talks in Vancouver along a business analytics theme... and as a former SA employee and long-time SAS consultant, his knowledge certainly runs very deep.  He gave a great talk around some of his most helpful SAS tips and tricks.  With an audience greatly mixed between Enterprise Guide users and traditional SAS programmers, Chuck managed to offer something for everyone: not easy to do at all!  I heard at least three people praising the talk and thanking him for the great work.

I myself delivered a talk around my favourite topic: social media. Yes, I was once again delivering some tips, tricks and insight into how to get the most out of this nebulous space as a SAS user.  I'm always very long winded and would never presume to judge my own talk... but I didn't see anyone throw up or fall asleep, so I guess there's that.

The Executive Team led by Malcolm Macrae has done a tremendous job here. We consistently see new faces out at the meeting and I know that they're all working tirelessly behind the scenes to help ensure that SAS users receive the benefit of attending. I'm thrilled that a few people have stepped up to assist them in continuing to speak on behalf of the SAS community in Calgary.

Although Alberta has been in the news for some unfortunate reasons lately - see the XL meat packing scandal - I'm very pleased to report that my trip to this great province was a rousing success. I made new friends, had many great conversations... and have a couple of projects to work on when I get home. The life of a Community Manager is never boring!

Next up: a busy week with the Toronto Data Mining Forum, Saskatoon and Winnipeg user groups. I'll be feverishly writing to update you all on the highlights of each so do stay tuned for lots more next week.

Until then...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Boldly Moving Forward in Edmonton

Yesterday marked the start of a brave new adventure for the Edmonton SAS User Group. Yes, eSUG was boldly going where (few) men had gone before... they were expanding their meeting to a full day session in the tradition of the Ottawa and Toronto user groups. The inspiration for this came from the inimitable Doug Dover, long-serving President of the eSUG Executive Committee and sprung out of our President's Meeting at SAS Global Forum in Orlando.  Doug was very keen to address a perceived gap in the support offered to the Edmonton SAS community.  While group attendance has been steadily climbing over the years, it was very difficult to offer presentations tailored to Enterprise Guide, Text Analytics, JMP and DataFlux users given the relatively short amount of time in a half-day meeting. Of course SAS programmers require a steady diet of code-based talks... but trying to satisfy all the needs of the SAS community in Edmonton was proving to be problematic. Hence, the idea of a full-day meeting was born.

The Toronto Area SAS Society focuses on programming topics in the morning and inteface-style SAS applications in the afternoon, a model used by the Edmonton group for guidance... with a fresh twist. The initial concept was to have small groups clustered around laptops for 'hands-on' sessions with EG and more. This idea morphed into concurrent interactive sessions led by Jared Prins and Wayne Levin who were giving interactive demos of Text Analytics and JMP respectively.  Given that we actually gained attendees in the afternoon session, I think this was for the best! It would have proved to be a real challenge to provide the experience we hoped for with such a large group.  Jared and Wayne each presented, demo'd and answered questions for over an hour each... truly some yeoman's work and much appreciated by all. I myself gave a talk as a lead-in to the afternoon session; as I explained to the attendees with a wry smile, I'm actually a SAS user myself (OK, Enterprise Guide and Enterprise Miner: most pure SAS programmers would say I'm a quasi-SAS user, a debate for a much longer blog post). Although I wasn't able to present the talk I wanted to give on analyzing Titanic passenger records, I think my talk around helping to set a strong line-up for my darts team in our uphill battle to retain our championship last year resonated with the group... at least, I hope it did!  It was certainly fun to deliver at any rate.

Of course, we can't discuss eSUG without a significant nod to the morning session. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of the new afternoon format, but the 'meat and potatoes' of the meeting remains SAS programming and more. I can't say enough about my travelling companion and feature speaker on this Alberta trip. Wayne Levin of Predictum Inc. is truly a joy to watch present. As arguably the leading authority on JMP in Canada, Wayne is unbelievably knowledgeable about the product and has a gracious, humerous way of presenting which instantly puts audiences at ease... and enthralls them, too!  In fact, I was forced to grab the metaphorical hook to drag him away for dinner at meeting's end due to the large group of attendees asking questions and seeking insights... and he had a response for all of them. Great job, Wayne!

We also had the pleasure of two local speakers in the morning; one a seasoned eSUG veteran and the other a fresh-faced presentation newcomer. It's fair to say that had the average attendee known this, they wouldn't have been able to tell who was presenting for the first time. Both speakers were absolutely phenomenal.  John Fleming of Alberta Health Services delivered a great talk around identifying unique endoscopy procedures using SAS.  I always appreciate presentations from a medical perspective; perhaps it's because there is little margin for error, or perhaps it's because I'm aware of the massive volume of data and level of expertise needed to make sense of it all. John's talk was eye-opening and interesting... even if I did stumble over pronunciation of the word 'endoscopy' in my introduction. I'm going to blame that on not enough coffee, that's all I have to fall back upon.

First-time presenter Iryna Nekhayevska of ATB Financial delivered her talk on reshaping data like a pro. Over lunch, I learned that Doug Dover had asked her three times to present and she finally relented on this, his third request. I'm sure the entire group is glad his persistence paid off! Iryna's talk was accessible and interesting, in no way reflective of her own concerns about the material. I joked with her that she had now been added to the infamous 'list' which means we'll certainly be asking her for a presentation again in the near future. I'm sure she'll do as well then as she did yesterday.

As always, it was a pleasure to break bread and share some laughs and good conversation with the presenters and the Executive Committee over lunch after the meeting. Whether discussing US politics, the challenges of big data or simply the intricacies of maintaining cordial relationships with Edmonton's law enforcement community (don't ask), we all had a ball.  I can't wait to be back again in the spring.  My thanks once again to Edmonton for such a great meeting and for being such gracious hosts.

Next up for me: the Calgary SAS user group meeting.  There's already snow on the ground in Calgary and a chill in the air, so my first task upon landing is going to be to go out a buy a new scarf and hat. I'll be sure to update you all on the meeting once it's concluded. 

Until then...

Friday, October 5, 2012

Halifax SAS User Group Wrap-Up

Well, it's taken me a week to sit down and recap the great SAS User Group meeting we had last Friday in Halifax... blame it on the travel, a crazy work week, or blame it on the boogie.  I prefer the boogie, myself, but that's just me.

I was fortunate enough to be joined on my journey by Toronto Area SAS Society President Art Tabachneck.  How and why, you might ask?  Or, you might not... but I think some of you were pondering those great questions, feeling the weight of the world upon you due to not knowing the answer.  Well, allow me to share.  Art won a contest in the SAS Canada Community we at SAS Canada sponsored about a year ago. Simply put, we wanted to hear interesting stories and uses of SAS... something a bit off the beaten path, if you will.  The lucky winner would travel with me to any user group of their choice across the country. Well, I suppose 'lucky' is being a bit subjective... but I'd like to think I'm a pretty good travel buddy (we'll have to ask Art for his thoughts).  Art was the clear winner of this contest and his choice was to head to Halifax.  Being a gentleman and a scholar, he even graciously offered to reprise his SAS Global Forum talk 'Copy and Paste Almost Anything'  for the group.  It was also the first time Art and I were able to travel together. We've worked closely together for many years and shared a few fleeting drinks at large conferences, but that was it.  I wasn't to be disappointed.

Halifax is a great place to eat, socialize and converse.  We met up with the other guest speakers and user group executives for dinner and had an absolutely fantastic time. Over out-of-this-world seafood, a few bottles of wine and some great east coast hospitality, I had a great conversation about SAS' use in academia, the presentations which were to come the following day, and more.  I had just enough time to introduce Art to the wonderful experience that is The Old Triangle before we tip-toed off to bed to rest up for the meeting.

The morning saw about 25 SAS users gathered for a nice breakfast and a chance to socialize before we got down to the business of the day.  I have to say, the camaraderie and cheerfulness are a few of my favourite things about Halifax. Familiar faces made a point of saying hello and inquiring about my health and my life (both fine, thank you).  I always feel like I'm at home in Halifax.

The meeting itself was punctuated by a great range of talks, all of which can be found posted on the SHRUG website.  In addition to Art's talk, we heard from the wonderful Martha Cox who shared some tips around making journal-ready graphs using SAS. I had no idea the parameters were so specific, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised!  We also experienced a team talk which was very near and dear to my heart as it focused around a marketing problem. Patrick Vandermeulen and his co-authors walked us through a business challenge of Lawton's Drugs and explained how they were using data mining and regression modeling to extrapolate a solution which could be applied to their entire chain.  It certainly sparked some interesting discussion!  I myself was very impressed with Faye Xu, a recent student of Dalhousie who was really driving a lot of the model creation through Enterprise Miner. The future of data mining looks to be in good hands, at least in Halifax!

Following the meeting it was time for Art and I to relax over lunch while overlooking the Halifax Harbour on a picture-perfect day.  Those moments will stay with me as we head into a typical Canadian winter... the blue skies, warm winds and sunny dispositions of the Haligonians we spent time with will certainly give me cause to smile in the cold months to come.

Next up for me: I'm headed to Alberta for the Calgary and Edmonton user group meetings. There are always interesting stories which come out of the Canadian prairies and I'm looking forward to sharing them with you.

Until then...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Stars in My Eyes at TASS

... and that's not just because the famous Toronto International Film Festival was wrapping up this past weekend. No, before the stars all left town we were to be graced by one more very special visitor - at least, special to those of us in the SAS world. Chris Hemedinger was to be the keynote speaker at the September edition of the Toronto Area SAS Society. What a way to start off the Fall/Winter season of Canadian user groups!

I'll admit to having a little bit of a fanboy moment or two with Chris, one of the originators of Enterprise Guide.  As a self-proclaimed lousy SAS programmer, I learned my SAS during my post-graduate work primarily through EG. I've also delivered several talks on using EG over the years at user groups from Whitehorse to Halifax. Whether reporting on Titanic passenger data, peeking into the Communities at SAS discussion forums to find EG tips, and even using it to analyze and quasi-optimize my darts game, it's been a powerful tool in my workbench for quite some time and one I've been proud to show off. I've had the privilege of meeting Chris several times over the years - mostly at SAS Global Forum - but to have almost 24 hours to talk with one of the people responsible for the creation and subsequent development of my beloved EG was an opportunity I'd been looking forward to for quite some time.

Naturally, we ended up speaking very little about Enterprise Guide over the course of his visit! Whether sharing stories with Canadian user group executives over dinner or trying to navigate the oh-too-small parking garage at the SAS Canada offices, Chris was obliging, gracious and fun. The depth and breadth of his knowledge is truly unbelievable as well; it was amazing to watch him solve users' questions by simply turning them over briefly in his mind.

OK, enough of the hero worship: on to the meeting itself!  Chris was truly 'the show'. He delivered two talks in the morning around moving from 32-bit SAS to 64-bit SAS on Windows and another on PowerShell and SAS. Both were extremely interesting and as I remarked at the meeting, the migration talk in particular would serve me well as the question of what migration meant is one I'm asked quite often.  In addition to the breakout sessions, Michael Lerner delivered a very deep dive into the importance of understanding what it meant to give a variable weight.  His talk explained how different SAS procedures treated this concept differently and offered some suggestions around best practice. 

The afternoon session featured more Chris Hemedinger with talks around moving from EG 4.1 to EG 4.3 and a fantastic talk around some of the custom tasks he created within the Enterprise Guide framework. This talk in particular blew me away... not only because Chris made it look so easy, but because the code used to add the tasks to EG was made publicly available on Chris' blog The SAS Dummy. Anyone can search for the tasks he's collected here and apply them to their own EG environment!  Of course, as Chris explained, a SAS administrator will still have ultimate control over the EG environment but hey: it's a nice option to have. 

We also tried out a new feature for TASS: the Solution to the Posed Problem, a staple of the Victoria SAS User Group.  A fairly simple problem was postulated online with a sample dataset, and we solicited methods of solving the problem.  We received almost ten responses back, which was great! Whether using Enterprise Guide, PROC SQL or even Microsoft Excel, the variety of solutions highlighted the strength of SAS and its flexibility as well. I'm quite sure we'll refine this particular element of the meeting and bring in back once again.  A special thanks to Art Tabachneck for animating this part of the meeting as only he can!

It would be remiss of me if I didn't mention rookie TASS presenter Eric Cai of Predictum. I first met Eric about a year ago as a student finishing his work at the University of Toronto and attending his first SAS user group... the Health User Group, as I recall.  At any rate here we are a year later and Eric is putting his statistical background to great use as a valued member of Wayne Levin's team, the flagship of JMP training and sales in Canada. As I mentioned at the meeting, Eric is the first presenter to ever have 'out-energied' me. He was a real dynamo: passionate, expressive and full of life. I was exhausted by the end of his talk just watching him.  Given the throng of SAS users around him at the end of the meeting, many found his talk on multicollinearity resonated with their own passion.

It was a real thrill to have a luminary like Chris at our meeting and I know that the SAS users in Toronto felt the same way. He'll always be welcome in Toronto! The meeting ended with satisified SAS supporters working their way into a drizzly end-of-summer afternoon.  If you'd like to read another take on the meeting, please feel free to visit Chris Battiston's blog in two parts on the TASS meeting. Part one is posted here and part two will be go live on September 24th.

Next up for me: I'll be travelling to Halifax for their user group meeting next week... I expect the drizzle I felt on Friday will have nothing on the fresh sea spray from the Atlantic. There's another Toronto connection going out with me as well as Art Tabachneck, the TASS President, will be the keynote speaker.  Of course I'll be back to report on my thoughts from Halifax - and I ALWAYS have a great time there.

Until then...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Un Autre Triomphe à Montréal: MONSUG User Group Meeting Dazzles and Delights

The recent meeting in Montréal marked my second visit to this great city in less than a month… how lucky am I!  Sometimes I have to pinch myself as a reminder that this is all real, that my job does in fact entail travel, camaraderie and a certain joie de vivre which the good folks of Montréal understand all too well.  To be frank, that may not be exactly the case at this moment as student protests have recently frayed nerves, elevated tensions and deepened lines of division in this normally carefree city… but from what I saw in my brief time there, the vast majority of the population were as kind, hospitable and unflappable as ever.

I arrived with the setting sun smacking off the mountain.  What a sight.  I’ve never had occasion to truly appreciate how beautiful Montréal can be: I’m often flying in during a winter storm or cloud cover, I suppose… but landing during the ‘magic hour’ certain took my breath away.  I was met by Hercules, the most personable limousine driver on the north side of the St. Lawrence river, and with laughter ringing out from the car, my adventure began.

The meeting itself took place the following day. Thanks to all the powers that be for Chantal Lessard, the undisputable glue of the SAS Montréal office.  I don’t know when this woman sleeps: she does a top-shelf job of supporting everyone locally as well as provincially and in my case, beyond.  In beautiful sunshine, we arrived at the Centre Mt-Royale for the meeting, ready for the arrival of eager early-morning SAS users.

Although we had a smaller group than normal, they were no less vocal nor less passionate.  In fact, perhaps even more so than usual.  Each presentation was punctuated by pointed questions, which told me that the audience was engaged and appreciative of the topics and the presenters.  With four presentations on the slate, there was certainly more than enough to pique the interest of all.

Leading off the day was Eric Lacombe, one of the co-leaders of the MONSUG Executive Committee.  Without meaning to sound over-indulgent, I can say with conviction that his presentation on his ‘top tricks from SAS Global Forum’ was simply the best I have ever seen.  This is a talk which we ask all of our user group attendees to deliver at their meetings upon their return from SGF, and I’ve always had a particular vision of what that talk would look like.  It would offer a tip or a trick learned at the conference which the presenter would bring back to their workplace or explore as a new component of their work life, and it would be shared with their local user group.  Eric didn't deliver a single tip, he delivered ten.  He went through the entire catalogue of SAS Global Forum papers – some 400+ - and whittled his favourite talks down to a top ten.  He then summarized why each of these was of importance, why it should be investigated further, and provided code, examples and even links to the archived presentations.  Absolutely phenomenal.  I told Eric that I would be using his presentation as a model for a ‘best practice’ for all groups going forward. Thanks for an illuminating, inspiring talk, Eric… and for the many hours I know you put into its development.  It's no wonder the evaluation forms rated yours as the most appreciated talk at the meeting.

Next up, Alex Salvas of Banque Nationale de Canada reprised a talk he delivered in the Fall at the Toronto Data Mining Forum around data quality assurance and how BNC identified challenges and took action.  It was great to see Alex once again – he’s a dynamic speaker and a very friendly person – and his talk was even better in French than in English.  It was also very nice of him not to poke fun of my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs once again… still stinging from that jab in the Fall, Alex! Given the number of other financial institutions who were listening attentively and asking questions afterwards, I would say his talk was a clear hit.  The path towards great data quality which he illustrated made sense and his openness to discussing this topic resonated strongly with the entire audience. 

Our next speaker was Jacques Pagé.  Jacques has been a SAS user almost as long as there has been SAS, and as a consultant recently relocated back to Montréal, he was certainly eager to demonstrate his knowledge…. although his expertise was known and acknowledged by everyone in the room.  His talk on Windows-based API routines executed by SAS was a little out of my comfort zone, but was no less compelling a talk than any of the others.  I suppose that is a testament to the strength of the presenter and the breadth of his knowledge.  Again, the audience had many questions which they brought forward and I was thrilled to see that his talk was a popular one.  It just goes to show that SAS user groups offer compelling and interesting views of different SAS products, solutions and approaches which although unfamiliar can yet be of value.

Finally, Carolyn Cunnison of SAS Canada stepped into the breach for her fellow training specialist Sylvain Tremblay.  Sylvain is a good friend of this blog – and a great friend to SAS users everywhere – and his presence was certainly missed as he tended to some personal matters.  However, Carolyn was more than up for the challenge of filling his shoes, and she did so admirably.  I can say this with confidence as I’d seen the presentation she delivered given by Sylvain week earlier in Saskatoon.  The talk centered around encrypting SAS datasets and datasteps, and was a ‘must see’ for anyone who was highly sensitive to information being transmitted through code, such as embedded passwords. 

I left Montréal all too soon after a great lunch with good friends.  However, I didn’t leave without some important takeaways.  Firstly, it’s clear to me that I need to rekindle my confidence in speaking French.  While it can be intimidating to do so to a large room – I’m always afraid of offending – it was made clear to me that it was expected that I do so moving forward.  I’ll admit to being a little intimidated by this prospect, but I’m certainly up for the challenge.  I do consider myself a lapsed –billingualist (is that even a term?  It is now!) so it should be a straightforward matter of brushing up and shaking free the cobwebs from my mind... and finding a little courage.  I also left with a clear view of the strength of the SAS community in Montréal.  Mathieu and Eric have been a two-man show on the executive committee for a while now, but when I appealed to the group for some support for their efforts, I could see that others were more than willing to step up and assist.  In fact, there are at least four individuals who will likely be helping out moving forward.  Thanks to them and to the community for their willingness to continue to support these great meetings.

I have to play some catch-up with this blog: I haven’t done justice to the Saskatoon or Winnipeg meetings yet, and I cry pardon for this oversight.  It's been a crazy month of May for me, but no excuses!  I hope to be able to write about their meetings shortly and share my amazing experiences there with all of you.

Until then…

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Record-Setting Attendance for A Record-Appreciating Audience

Of course, I’m not referring to LPs and EPs here… that would be something this former Disc Jockey would certainly gravitate towards but I’m quite sure more of this blogs audience is actually more into data records.   Actually, come to think of it, so am I in the professional phase of my life!

I’m sitting in an airplane as I write this.  I know: what a HUGE surprise.  To tell you the truth, I do feel a little discombobulated at the moment.  Wednesday morning I was up bright and early to head in to the office in Toronto – with a little trepidation, I might add – for the Toronto Data Mining Forum and by dinner I was in Saskatoon.  I was feeling a little anxious a little while ago for all the right reasons.  Registration for the Toronto Data Mining event was hovering around 350 individuals, and we only had enough room for about 260.  Even with expected drop-off, it was a little nail-biting for me as I never want anyone to be turned away from a SAS Canada user group… that would certainly have been a first.

Another important first was actually achieved, however.  I’ll have to confirm this for sure, but by scanning the room, I could guess-timate that there were about 220 people in attendance.  I know, I know, it’s exceptionally dangerous to use the work ‘guess’ around statisticians and data miners: it’s practically a swear word in some circles.  This attendance for a single, half-day morning session (if accurate) will represent the single largest gathering of SAS users for a user group in Canada ever.  All credit goes to the executive committee led by Dina Duhon of Scotiabank who so consistently find incredible presenters offering great content to a willing and eager audience.  Congratulations to them for helping to realize this amazing achievement! 

The agenda certainly promised great things.  The presenters were all relatively unknown on the stage of the user groups, but their topics were certainly compelling.  Given the audience reaction to each of the talks, it was clear to me that they were a hit.  This just goes to show that anyone can – and should – feel empowered to stand up and give a talk on any topic at a user group meeting.  Nothing but good things can happen.

Leading off the agenda, Charles Chen started us off with an hour on
survival model attrition and analysis.  With great energy, humour and above all, confidence, Charles walked us through a variety of scenarios and the rationale behind employing survival models within a finance-based environment.  The patient was in fact the customer, and permanent events – possibly death, in a health context – were representative of churn and attrition.  I have to say, the audience LOVED this talk.  Charles was fielding questions left, right and centre with a smile on his face and a well-thought out answer on his lips.  As he finished I had at least five people come up to me raving about his talk and hoping to get an advance copy of it to take back to their environment and start discussions around implementing similar strategies.  There is no greater reward within the SAS community than helping someone else: whether an individual or an organization.  In this respect, Charles more than succeeded.  The best news of all is that he had to leave out a significant portion of information… I guess this means we’ll happily have him back for round two in the near future.  Great job Charles, I know we all learned a lot!

Following our networking break, Masoud Charkabi of CIBC took the microphone.  Masoud is a young, well-polished, unflappable presenter.  He clearly radiated confidence in his material and was no stranger to the stage.  Some people might be intimidated talking to a room full of data mining practitioners about considerations around computing resources in data mining, but not Masoud. 
From both a hardware perspective and a software perspective, he confidently walked us through some of the more important considerations when considering efficiency and scalability.  He even referenced both my own brief talk around SAS’ High Performance Analytics offerings and a previous presentation given by Daymond Ling on segmentation at the fall Data Mining Forum.  I was very impressed with how he tied together so many disparate elements into one cohesive talk…. and he teased us enough about text mining for me to make a note that he would be an ideal person to give a talk around this fascinating topic in the future.  Fantastic stuff, Masoud!

Our next presenter kept up the hot streak of the group in terms of exceptional delivery and relevance.  Mario Wen of TD Bank discussed the
philosophy and application of fraud detection analysis.  Coming from the perspective of debit card fraud, he was able to explain in layman’s terms how fraud takes place and his organizations strategy for fighting back.  He likened it to a game of cat and mouse, and it certainly seemed that way; the ‘bad guys’ were always learning and adapting, but so were the good guys.  Fraud detection is clearly an art form which requires patience, diligence and near-constant vigilance.  Having been on the opposite end – my debit and credit cards have both been shut down erroneously by banks because it was perceived as unusual behavior – I can say that I didn’t mind one bit the slightly over-zealous security measures taken by anti-fraudsters.  I’d rather be protected constantly and inconvenienced rarely than the other way around.  Mario handled all the questions that came his way with unflappable calm, and I was truly impressed with the complexity of his subject – but the simplicity of how he conveyed it.

Finally, Bob Saaramaki of DataMaApp closed out the session with a thought-provoking presentation on
using experimental design techniques to maximize marketing efforts.  Bob is a natural; a great presenter very comfortable and at ease in front of an audience, he was able to explain and contextualize his organizations unique approach to marketing processes with great clarity and humour.  I shouldn’t have been surprised: when Bob presented at the TASS meeting in March, his room was overflowing!  At any rate, I think that he opened some eyes and got some wheels spinning around a much more efficient way to do marketing.  In terms of time, lift, and spend, he very effectively demonstrated that a biology-inspired approach to experiment design could indeed pay off in spades… and could be driven through base SAS as well!  I only wish we had more time for him to dive deeper into his talk.  Next time, Bob.

At meetings’ end, I heard from many attendees that they really appreciated all of the presentations and the general sense of community which came from the group.  Here’s hoping the next meeting is just as well-received!

Until then…

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Business Analytics & The Next Wave of SAS Solutions

I had the privilege this past week of attending the Forum analytique SAS de Quebec and the Forum analytique d'affaires SAS de Montreal, two of the leading edge user groups in Canada.  These groups are formidable in structure and in scope, and last week's meetings were no different.

Both groups are strongly supported by SAS Canada solution specialists which means that they have the opportunity to have the newest SAS solutions presented and demonstrated by some of the brightest in Canada.  The theme for both meetings this past week was high performance analytics (HPA) with a strong focus on the new SAS Visual Analytics solution, which featured heavily at SAS Global Forum in Orlando.  I, for one, was extremely excited to see the talks on the slate.

I've been fascinated by HPA long before Dr. Jim Goodnight demonstrated the unbelievable hardware power required to perform billions of calculations in minutes at SGF... with the aid of a hologram, no less!  I'm one of those data geeks who really loves efficiencies of all kinds.  If a few hours, minutes or seconds can be shaved off a task, I'm immediately interested - although given my proclivity for coffee breaks during this time, perhaps my local barista doesn't necessarily share my excitement given the sharp drop in business which will inevitably follow. 

Both groups featured Ron Allard giving an overview of the challenges of Big Data which make HPA such a game-changer. His talk was entitled 'Le "Big Data": Pourquoi les entreprises devraient s'en préoccuper et quels sont les moyens d'y faire face'? or in English, why organizations need to pay attention and how to do so most effectively.  Ron's talk certainly sparked some great conversation in Quebec where a small but engaged audience found a lot of value out of his talk.  Ron nicely framed out the consideration around what Big Data actually is - no small task in a rapidly changing discussion space.  He also gave an overview of some of the hardware requirements necessary to use HPA effectively and discussed the difference between in-database and in-memory analytics. His talk also nicely set up Andre Lafreniere who would be carrying the majority of the meeting with an overview and demonstration of the SAS Visual Analytics solution.

Now, I've seen VA demonstrated a few times.  I first saw a sneak peek of it at our annual kick-off meeting in January.  Of course, we saw a lot of it at SAS Global Forum as well.  Now I don't know about you, o gentle reader, but I often wonder if the products work as quickly as they do when they're not the feature component of a huge conference or presentation.  After last weeks meetings, I can happily attest that the answer is 'yes'.  I was blown away with how quickly the drag and drop functionality worked.  Andre was able to run logistic regressions against a fairly robust dataset in mere seconds... and the GUI interface was as slick off of his iPad and laptop as it was on the big stages of the past few months.  True, I'm a SAS employee, but I con honestly say I was blown away by the possibilities allowed by the combination of HPA and VA.  No more subsetting data for the sake of saving time?  Visual data exploration, real-time drilldowns and easy drag-and-drop?  Sign me up!

The Canadian SAS user groups are traditionally a great way of supporting SAS users by offering tricks, tips and hints around optimizing existing SAS implementations.  This often means speaking to the vast number of SAS programmers out there who are doing amazing work with a tried, tested and true system.  I'm glad I had the chance to get a glimpse at the future of SAS and analytics... who knows, in 5 years or so, perhaps we'll be seeing tips and tricks on SAS Visual Analytics.  I think the users who attended were impressed by the next wave of SAS solutions and I hope we'll see even more talks as they become prevalent in industry moving forward.

Speaking of moving forward, I have a hectic week of user group meetings coming up.  Toronto Data Mining, Saskatoon and Winnipeg are all on the docket for me this week with my manager Wally Thiessen making the short hop down to Hamilton for the GHSUG user group meeting on Friday.  You'll be hearing a lot more from me over the next seven days or so, I can guarantee you that!

Until then...

Friday, April 20, 2012

IML IRL: Another Fantastic Rendez-vous au Club SAS de Québec

I’m composing this en route to Toronto from one of my favourite stops on the user group tour, the beautiful historic city of Québec. I always find myself grinning with anticipation before arrival and disappointed when I have to leave. It’s not just the phenomenal food, beautiful hotel (for those who get the chance: do yourself a favour and stay at l’Auberge Saint-Antoine, it’s phenomenal) or the promise of great presentations at a well-run user group meeting. Québec for me is all about the people. From the hard-working, diligent executive committee through to the habitual attendees who always find time to tease me on my facility with la belle langue, I relish each time I get the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues as they patiently smile through my attempts at French conversation. I consider myself very lucky that I find myself in their company at least 4 times a year.

I began my adventure this time with some close friends from the SAS Institute for dinner, drinks and discussion the night before the user group meeting. It’s always a pleasure to see Training Specialist Sylvain Tremblay and long-time SAS employee Rosie Foti. Discussing the following day’s meeting over a delicious meal which was conceived and inspired by seasonal wine direct from France is enough to get anyone’s creative juices flowing… no matter how ‘complex’ the ingredients might be. In fact, if I’m not stretching this too much, the meal itself in some ways mirrored the complexity – yet harmony – of the SAS community I am privileged to experience across Canada through the auspices of the user group meetings.  Some of the SAS users I meet are programmers, statisticians, others and data mining practitioners. Others are business analysts, database administrators, and beyond. They come from all kinds of backgrounds: academic, civil service, healthcare, financial, retail, communications. And yet – somehow – there is a harmony which is achieved when we all come together. In this case, the ‘wine’ which binds us is SAS. And like the meal I enjoyed with Sylvain and Rosie, many elements come together inspired by the wine to form a perfectly balanced experience. Now, I’m not sure where dessert fits into this metaphor, but I can only say this much: I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Perhaps a parallel with SAS Global Forum? Now I’m really stretching this far.

The meeting itself was prefaced by another wonderful meal – this time, with the user group executive committee. A total of 9 of us sat down in more casual environs to catch-up and discuss our thoughts around the planning process and our expectations for the upcoming meeting. Québec City is fairly unique in this regard. There is a consistent desire to constantly improve and adjust, even before a meeting has taken place! I have to single out Latifa for really leading the charge in terms of breaking new ground. She has taken the initiative to reach out to new potential attendees – the Statistical Society of Québec – and is a real driver. I’m very grateful for her participation!  Of course, that’s not to say the rest of the executive committee didn’t do their part as well. The team functions very well together with clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

We arrived at the Université de Laval for the meeting proper to find attendees already waiting for us. One of the best things about Québec is the level of networking and discussion which takes place outside of the presentations. It’s a true joy to watch the group liaise and interact before the talks and during the break. The presentations themselves offered a wide variety of themes. I wasn’t able to hear the talk on segmentation by M. Bouhia from Banque Nationale de Canada nor Sylvain’s SAS/IML talk – there were a few latecomers I needed to catch up with and as I explained to Louis-René Rheault, the once-again-acclaimed President of the group, ‘someone needs to guard the coffee and sweets from the hungry eyes of the students!’ I did catch Mme. Diarra and her great talk on the Autoexec feature of Enterprise Guide and from what I heard in the room – and saw on the evaluations afterwards – it was quite well received. I’ve linked the talks above but for those interested, have a peek at the website du Club: you’ll find all the previous talks archived there as well.

I’m also pleased that the majority of the current executive was acclaimed to continue their work together. Again, this team just seems to function extremely well as a unit. Jean, Patrice, JF, LR, Latifa, Audrey, Hans, Ismael, Jerome: il faut que je vous remerciez fortement pour tous vos efforts! Merci, merci, merci.

As I begin to approach Toronto, I know I’ll have moments for the next day when I want to speak or respond in French – a wonderful legacy of each visit to Québec. I’m also glad that I’ll be seeing Patrice Brisebois in a few short days at SAS Global Forum in Orlando…. And you’ll be hearing from me there as well: that is, when I can tear myself away from the presentations long enough to find some time to write!

À la prochaine…

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

All I Ever Wanted To Know About Competing Risks, Administrative Data & Data Quality Assurance

Last Friday, the Health User Group met in Toronto, an occasion which always brings me great joy when it occurs. The Executive Committee is a great mix of savvy SAS supporters who have seen – and survived! – almost everything, and bright young SAS stars who are already making a name for themselves in the world of the SAS Canada Community. The group consistently delivers in terms of potent presenters, engaged audiences, timely and topical questions, and great dialogue. In these respects, last Friday’s meeting didn’t disappoint.

I should mention that we didn’t escape unscathed from the sense of dread which seems to permeate Friday the 13th… for there were a few hiccups in an otherwise very smooth meeting. Overlapping meetings meant that the normally cozy environment of our meeting rooms at SAS Canada threatened to be even more so; the entire company was to be having breakfast in the midst of the registration process! This proved to be a non-factor: in fact, I think some of the attendees did benefit from connecting with some familiar faces on the SAS side. Regardless, it was very tempting to all of us as the smells of the delicious company breakfast wafted over our group. I found myself looking down at my bagel and fruit resignedly as my colleagues filled up on hash browns, bacon and more… not to complain, of course: I guess I was just thinking a bit too much with my stomach early in the morning.

One of the happy consequences of having a company breakfast and lunch around the Health User Group was that we were treated to a slightly different set-up in terms of the meeting space. The normally cramped and confined quarters of rows of chairs gave way to a much more ‘civilized’ arrangement. Tables were provided with groups of 4 chairs at each. This situation afforded people the chance to network and get to know their fellow healthcare SAS practitioners even more than normal… and as a Community Manager, there’s nothing I like to see more than connections being made between people. An obvious secondary benefit: a clear, clean writing surface! This made note-taking easy, and given the strength of all 3 of our presenters, this was undoubtedly a good thing.

The meeting led off with a powerhouse of a presentation. Melania Pintilie of the Ontario Cancer Institute at Princess Margaret Hospital came with the highest possible recommendation from Ruth Croxford, the HUG President. I trust Ruth implicitly in all things, and she certainly hit a home run in lining up Melania to present. Her talk was on competing risks in survival analysis, a topic she knew inside and out, having authored a book on the subject and taught a course or two as well. Her relaxed approach to a very complex topic – as a non-statistician, I felt lucky to understand a small bit of the complex mathematics she explained – was clearly popular with the crowd, an observation which was reflected by the extremely high average mark of appreciation on the evaluation forms. I think Melania managed to shed new light on something many in the room had never considered: that death itself could be considered a competing risk in certain survival analysis models. It certainly provoked many questions… and even more nervousness from a few of the attendees I chatted with afterwards! It was clear that the insight they received had caused them to rethink the accuracy of their own models, and many were grateful for the shift in perspective. I’m curious to see if there is any future feedback on how their model accuracy has improved. Melania’s talk was a tough act to follow, but Simon Tavasoli of CIHI managed to do so… in spades.

Simon is a fascinating individual. Well-educated, well-spoken and clearly well-versed in database administration, he is part of a ‘tactical data squad’ which is tasked with performing quick, short turnover data pulls and analysis. Who better to talk about efficiencies in administrative data? Simon has seen and done it all. His talk was comprehensive and even more importantly, comprehensible. Progressing through many elements of SAS programming, Simon clearly demonstrated how proper syntax, thinking through the structured order of a SAS statement and streamlining database processing could clearly improve wait time on job completion. He almost took a step-wise approach to data steps, if that makes sense. Even for a moderately skilled programmer such as myself, the tips and tricks he shared were ones which I could embrace and call forth in the future. Great talk, Simon!

Finally, we were treated to Mahmoud Azimaee of ICES talking about data quality assurance: a perfect progression from the previous efficiency-based talk. Mahmoud has graced the SAS Global Forum stage with a more in-depth version of the technical aspects of this talk… and it was a treat for me to see the theory behind the practice. He is a very gifted speaker; affable, intelligent, and well-polished. Of course, his knowledge in this space is second to none as well! In a perfectly timed talk he was able to lay out the vision of the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy’s data quality approach, the progression to how they determined their needs, process and practice, and offered many resources and contacts along the way. Given the feedback on the evaluation forms many of the attendees were also impressed with Mahmoud’s thoroughness, and many were looking forward to taking a closer look at his presentation.

All in all, the meeting was a great success. The attendees seemed to be extremely happy with the presentations and I was thrilled with the engagement and synergies flowing between the attendees, presenters and myself. I echo one of the comments on the evaluation which said ‘I wish these meetings could happen over weekends: there’s so much to learn!’. Next up for me: Quebec City, home of my favourite poutine in the world as well as some of my favourite users. I’ll have more on that meeting upcoming…. And of course, SAS Global Forum!

Until then….

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Quarterly TASS Meeting Hits All the Right Notes

Last Friday saw the return of TASS... and my premonition that it would be a well-attended, well-received meeting proved to be accurate. Almost 250 people attended the full-day session and it was great to see so many familiar faces after a few months absence. I even had the opportunity to wish many a long-overdue happy New Year!

The reason the meeting was so well-attended isn't a mystery, of course: it has everything to do with the strength of the agendas of both Classic TASS and TASS Interfaces. The groups are very fortunate as there is a very strong contingent of willing and able presenters that enjoy presenting at TASS who are globally recognized for their SAS knowledge. In fact, many of the talks we enjoyed in the morning session were 'dry-runs' for the upcoming SAS Global Forum taking place April 22-25 in Orlando, Florida.

Leading off was Barry Hong, Past-President of TASS' sister group, the Golden Horseshoe SAS User Group (GHSUG). The talk centered around the ODS Graphics Designer, and it really did peel back the layers of mystery which seem to often surround graphs and graphing procedures. As Barry explained, 'it's pretty intuitive once you open up the code'. Perhaps not to this humble author and admittedly amateur-ish SAS programmer, but the majority of the audience certainly appreciated the step-by-step approach towards creating and sharing graph templates. It was quite compelling stuff: Barry took a significant amount of quite complex code and broke it down in layman's terms bit by bit. Such was the interest that one of the open breakout session spots was co-opted by Barry and a hardy group of graphing enthusiasts a little later in the morning. This talk definitely had SAS Global Forum all over it... perhaps you'll update and submit it next year, Barry?

Not to be outdone, the always entertaining Peter Eberhardt delivered a talk which he'll be giving in Orlando in about seven weeks' time. Known for his humour, his energy and his deep knowledge of all things SAS, Peter's presentation certainly didn't disappoint in any respect. His 'One Guy On Hash' talk was a scaled-down version of his SAS Global Forum talk which he'll be delivering with a collaborator. Although I did learn more about hash objects and why they're so useful than I thought I ever could in 45 minutes, I can't help but to be reminded of the image of Peter which led off the slide deck. Featuring Peter in the 1970s on a Disneyland visit, it even more shockingly featured Peter with shoulder-length hair. I was stunned... and impressed! Those of you going down to Orlando would be well-served by attending the extended version of this talk... or catching Peter at some point as he expertly chairs the Enterprise Guide section of SAS Global Forum. In fact, if you're interested in volunteering your time to help him out, send him an email and tell him I sent you; he'll be very grateful for your interest!

As I alluded to earlier, the break-out sessions at this past TASS meeting were something special. Michael Lerner has traditionally offered compelling, consistently interesting discussion in the 'Statistics' group. This meeting was the first time during my tenure at SAS that he wasn't leading this session. We were privileged to have Bob Saarimaki of DatamaApp who walked through some 'whens & how's' of statistical processes for the purposes of modeling. His room was literally bursting at the seams: standing room only was definitely the order of the session... I'm sure new friendships were forged due to forced proximity more than any other reason! Of course, TASS President Art Tabachneck wasn't about to surrender his title of 'most attended breakout session' without a fight. Explaining that he had recently had a third presentation accepted for SAS Global Forum as a 'back-up', he was more than happy to try it out on a willing audience in his Coder's Corner break-out session. His presentation around unusual date formats and how to handle them was incredibly full as well. I'm very pleased that there were only a few individuals who weren't in one of these two talks: clearly, they were just what the Doctor ordered (and the Health User Group isn't taking place until April 13th).

The afternoon session was extremely well attended and featured at least one nervous presenter. Yes, it's true: for the second TASS meeting in a row, I delivered a technical talk... with the added pressure of a live demo this time. Given the amazing level of expertise of the SAS users in the room, I wasn't sure if my talk on how I used Enterprise Guide to help set my darts team's line-up to best advantage was going to go over well. At the very least, I hope the attendees were amused as I walked the room through the high and lows of how I strategized for a darts match on a semi-professional level. It was a lot of fun to deliver, and to be honest, I hope I encouraged others to consider giving a talk as well. It's amazing to see how one can extrapolate and correlate examples which may seem simple to more complex, real-world business issues... in this case, using darts to illustrate an operational research problem.

New TASS Interfaces President Laurent Josso also delivered a great talk around SAS Graph NV. There's something about the ability to visualize and manipulate relationships which the vast majority find fascinating... including myself. Laurent demonstrated how this type of manipulation of data can be both informative and intuitive from a micro and macro perspective. The meeting's presentations concluded on a high-note: SAS Canada Training Specialist Barb Crowther walked us through a DataFlux presentation and demonstration which really showcased the importance and power of data cleanliness.

The last item of note for the afternoon session was the SAS User Exchange. Led by Jim Burkhardt, this new element is actually an old feature from the TASS meetings of yore. Users are free to bring their general SAS issues, questions and comments and direct them to the group. The executive committee and fellow attendees then try and help walk through these problems in a collaborative fashion. Nothing says community more than group collaboration!

As we say goodbye to TASS until the early days of June, it would be remiss of me if I didn't thank and acknowledge the work of Past President of TASS Interfaces, Craig McCulloch. His efforts helped grow this group through the first two years of its existence from a concept to a vibrant community of Enterprise Guide, Enterprise Miner, JMP and DataFlux users. Craig will be taking a well-deserved break from the leadership function, but it's important to note that his contribution to the group's forward momentum will be a lasting one. Many thanks, Craig.

As always, there seems to be another meeting just around the corner... and in fact, one managed to slip by me (due to a bout of illness) that I haven't yet blogged about; the Halifax SAS User Group took place just a few weeks ago! I'm going to try and catch you up on the wonderful dialogue and presentations which took place then and look ahead to the Health User Group taking place in about a month's time. Stay tuned!

Until then...