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….