Monday, October 28, 2013

The First Snow of the Season in Saskatoon

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of hosting the Saskatoon SAS user group (SUCCESS) with the assistance of a vibrant, strong and engaged Executive Committee. My colleague Carolyn Cunnison remarked that I seemed to be smiling constantly while I was there, and I'd have to agree. Saskatoon remains one of my favourite cities to visit and I always have a fantastic time with the SAS community while I'm there. Now, I think my smile may have actually been slightly frozen to my face by the chilly, chilly weather if I'm to be perfectly honest. I had arrived after 4 days spent in the humidity of Florida and while the cold wasn't yet bone-chilling it certainly was a huge difference from what I'd been accustomed to. And yes, it's true: the first snow sighting of the year did take place: an ominous, slushy and very, very frigid-looking puddle at the University of Saskatoon. Winter is coming...

I was glad that the meeting itself went a long way towards keeping me warm and happy. The meeting featured presentations from a whole host of great local speakers. Lily Wu of the Health Quality Council gave a very interesting talk on building tables with SAS: it was perfect as it nicely dovetailed and set-up my own Enterprise Guide talk later in the day. Lily was joined by her colleague Nianping Hu who offered a talk around propensity scoring models using SAS. The HQC was certainly well-represented at the meeting!

I suppose some of the staff and students of the University of Saskatchewan must have felt that they needed to reclaim the home field advantage, and by offering two presentations they certainly helped to level the playing field. Peter Beug offered a great talk around Proc Transpose - I'm always a fan of presentations which really get under the hood of a particular proc, process or prompt. Masud Rana also discussed a SAS macro he had built for univariate logistic regression. Masud has presented previously on some pretty deep statistical processes, and I think the biggest good-natured laugh of the day came after Eric Wang - the MC of the meeting - opined that he really enjoyed this talk because he actually understood it this time!

Finally, the special SAS guest truly was someone outstanding. Carolyn Cunnison has been working with SAS for many years and has instructed hundreds of users. Her ability to present complex topics in a simple, clear and patient manner takes all the confusion and anxiety out of learning SAS. We were fortunate that Carolyn was able to join us as she had recently returned from vacation. Her talks gave proof to her wide level of knowledge. She presented on hash objects first, a topic which can be complex... but which she made remarkably clear. She also gave a great talk on tips for programmers using Enterprise Guide which clearly charged up the room.

As always, I had to leave the city much too soon. It was great to spend time with friends old and new. Saskatoon is certainly fortunate that they are championed by so many strong SAS users. But I couldn't rest, I had to move on to Winnipeg with Carolyn... more on that meeting shortly.

Until then...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Triangle of a Different Sort: SAS Goes to Halifax

When many people think of SAS' headquarters in North Carolina, they often think of the variety of food, entertainment and technology available in the Raleigh-Durham triangle. The area is certainly a hub for free-thinking and innovation. There are a number of universities in striking distance of each other and many software, social media and consulting groups have set up shop in the region. My associations with 'SAS' and 'triangle' are a little different: OK, a LOT different. I associate SAS with The Olde Triangle, a phenomenal Celtic music bar which I visit each and every time I'm in Halifax. One of the wonderful benefits of my role at SAS is that I get to sample a bit of the local colour of most cities I'm in. For those of you who have been to Halifax, you will agree with me that it is certainly chock full of colour!

Pleasant diversions aside, my purpose for travelling to Halifax was to support their users at the local user group meeting. This small but potent group of SAS users never fails to impress and entertain. My companion for this particular trip was M. Sylvain Tremblay - the most Celtic Quebecois I know. I would swear that he's more Irish than some of the people who proudly belt out sea shanties at The Olde Triangle! As an aside, my single greatest moment of pride was knowing lyrics to a song that he didn't. I nearly shed a tear.

But back to the meeting.

As many of the attendees are health-focused, there was a distinct health slant to most presentations. John Fahey led off with what seems to be a persistent topic at SHRUG meetings: survival analysis. John is a pleasure as a presenter. He is about as relaxed as one could be, yet his knowledge is so deep and so vast, he can address virtually any question or comment. He was followed by the newest SHRUG executive Kara Thompson who offered a SAS Global Forum recap. I can honestly say that this was one of the better recaps I've seen. Kara focused mainly on a great tip which she learned at Global Forum and described how she applied it in her work. Nice job, Kara! There were two other talks offered as well. Devbani Raha discussed SAS dates - a very popular topic everywhere, it seems - and Sylvain Tremblay looked at the MIANALYZE and MI procedures for imputing missing data. Great talks all around, to be sure! You'll be able to find them all posted shortly on the SHRUG website. However, one of the most interesting elements of the meeting for me was an open discussion session.

The SHRUG group had included a SAS challenge on their invitation which was meant to spur discussion by soliciting a variety of responses. While we didn't have many submissions, this did allow the group to discuss ways to improve their meetings for the benefit of all. Were interactive exercises like this something that made sense? Or, would more presentations be in order? What did the attendees want to see moving forward? The discussion was interesting and spirited... and we even managed to delve into the SAS challenge as well!

To me, this type of open and frank discussion is really what the SAS community is all about. Coming together in collaboration to help each other and share their knowledge. This type of engagement is something I'd like each and every user group across Canada to embrace... and most do, in their own way!

I left Halifax much, much too soon. 24 hours is not enough time to spend in this great city. I know I'll be back sooner rather than later, however... and I look forward to it already. My next adventure: Saskatoon and Winnipeg this week. The agendas for both meetings look great and I'll be glad to share my thoughts on these heartland communities upon my return.

Until then...

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Shouting From the Podium: Data Mining Takes Centre Stage

This past Wednesday, SAS Canada's offices was once again pleasantly overrun by data mining practitioners. I often find myself wondering what the collective, cumulative experience of the attendees must be. Hundreds of years? It must be, at a minimum. On top of it, these are some of the best and brightest from a wide range of industries. Whether business analysts in financial services, actuarial professionals from insurance companies, health analysts from hospitals and the government, these folks certainly bring an impressive array of skills to bear. It's a bit intimidating to be in the same room, I tell you! The only thing to do is deliver a compelling agenda which engages and entertains. I'd like to think we were able to do so at the most recent meeting.

I was privileged to spend time with our keynote speaker in a social context before and after the meeting. Krzysztof Dzieciolowski of Rogers Communications certainly turned out to be something of a star draw. There were former and current colleagues of his scattered throughout the room, and my own experiences with him made it clear why this would be the case. Not only was he a brilliant man - in his spare time, he had previously chaired the Stastistical Society of Canada in Quebec and he currently taught data mining at Concordia University - but he was an entirely pleasant and cheerful person to talk with around a wide range of topics. Over dinner, we discussed our shared Polish heritage, tales of football glory and heroes of the past, the challenges of teaching and implementing data mining solutions... and much more. The time just flew by!

As a speaker, Krzysztof offered a tremendous overview of a complex and interesting topic. Entitled 'Scoring Models, Propensity Transformations and Model Scoring Using SAS', the talk was balanced with a lot of theory combined with practical examples. Given the interest of the audience in asking him questions - I nearly had to pull him out of a well-wishing mob of admirers at the break - I'd say his talk was an unqualified success.

Carrie Dang of Loyalty One was our second presenter, and I can honestly say that I've rarely felt worse for a presenter than I did for poor Carrie. Her topic was riveting, her talk well put together... and her voice was soft and soothing. Developing a scoring model for email campaigns is something that all marketers can relate to and I found myself nodding along with her talk. Ordinarily this is a recipe for great success, but Carrie had the misfortune of dealing with a problem which has become all too common at my meetings: technological failure. Our audio system dropped entirely, and I'm afraid anyone beyond the first 20 rows may not have heard a thing. I apologized profusely to both Carrie and the audience and I appreciate that the quality of the experience must have been significantly negatively affected. For what it's worth I've escalated this technological issue internally and been assured that it will be addressed for future meetings. I've extended an offer to Carrie to take her out for lunch by way of saying 'thank you' and 'I'm sorry'. I hope that it's a start, at least!

Our last presenter of the day was SAS Canada's own Lorne Rothman who has been gracing our stage quite a bit lately. Lorne is such a great, natural presenter that if I could somehow wrangle him into giving a talk at every meeting, I certainly would! He instantly had the crowd relaxed by opining that 'unlike the first two talks, mine isn't interesting'. Great stuff. Lorne's talk was focused around getting the most out of SAS Enterprise Miner as a SAS programmer, and he really showed the flexibility of the code node for all it was worth. I was especially grateful to Lorne as he filled an agenda hole which suddenly and unexpectedly developed. I confess to breathing a sigh of relieve when his topic was so well-received.

As time as gone on in my SAS career I have noticed that data mining has taken centre stage in media publications and public thought. As analytics have become less of a black box and more of an indispensable business requirement, the practitioners who are able to blend the art and science of mathematics, psychology, sociology and business savvy are becoming more and more critical to successful business processes. It's a real privilege to be so deeply involved with this group of individuals.
The presentations will be posted very shortly at the Toronto Data Mining Forum website and you'll be able to access them there shortly. For me, however, there were very little time to pause and reflect. I was about to fly out to Halifax for their user group meeting, one which would drive home the importance and strength of SAS community in a much different way. I'll have more about that meeting in an upcoming post.

Until then...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sunrise In the Paris of the Prairies

Here I sit in my hotel room in Regina at 4:00am. I’ve showered and packed, ready to hit the road for my early flight back to Toronto. Yet I must admit, I’m more than a little wistful to leave this great city. The people and the weather have both been warm and delightful.

I’m pleased to say that some of that warmth is coming back with me, though. The great feeling of community which began for me with last Friday’s TASS meeting has carried on here in the prairies. We had great representation here from SAS Canada – I was representing the Toronto office, our keynote speaker (and good friend) Sylvain Tremblay from Montreal and Pre-Sales Specialist Jamie Peterson from the Calgary office. It’s a rare thing that so many offices are so strongly represented at a user group meeting – Regina, you’re certainly doing things right! The Executive Committee here in Regina also helps make that sense of community that much more real. Coming from a variety of backgrounds and industries, these volunteers give off the impression that they have known each other forever. Everyone works seamlessly together to ensure the highest quality speakers are available and that all the logistical details are taken care of without any hitches. It makes life that much easier when every question or request you could think of has already been answered or addressed.

One of the things I love most about this SAS community is how it has responded in great numbers to the establishment of the user group. Last May, we had two half-day meetings which each attracted around 30-40 people. This time, we had nearly 50 people show up… a sign that word of mouth is helping fire up the group! Two things stood out to me here. The first was that on the evaluation forms, several people indicated that they had NO SAS background at all – that they were in attendance to see what the meetings were all about and to support their teams. Now THAT is the spirit of community! The second thing which jumped out to me was that en route to lunch, Matt Spence of Farm Credit Canada – and the initial driver of the Executive Committee – mentioned to me that he had a goal of realizing a 100 attendee meeting. Outstanding. It’s great to see the group want to grow and excel, and goes that little bit further towards confirming why we elected to start this group up in the first place.

The meeting itself had an agenda designed to try and accommodate as wide a variety of SAS usage as possible – in terms of skill level as well as usage type. We began with some SAS programming basics: encryption and security settings courtesy of Sylvain. I’ve seen this talk a few times before, but I always come away with something new… this time, it was the ability to encrypt a SAS data set which really stood out for me. Great for ensuring that any FTP or email transfers wouldn’t be a vulnerability. Davendra Patel of eHealth Saskatchewan continued with the programming theme by scanning the log for notes and errors – a great habit for any SAS user to practice. The beauty of this talk was that Davendra actually modified code from a SUGI 31 paper and put it into production in his environment: once again, the SAS community shows its strength! Shaun Kauffmann of Farm Credit Canada closed off the programming elements of the meeting by taking the discussion to the advanced level with a thorough discussion of hash objects and hash tables. The strength here is certainly in optimization and time savings, and Shaun made that clear through his talk. Finally, I brought up the rear reprising an Enterprise Guide talk I have delivered over the years in a few cities around testing a hypothesis around the Titanic survival rates. You can check out all the talks here within the next few days.

I had the distinct pleasure of being ‘trapped’ in Regina for an extra 18 hours following the meeting – the flight schedule just worked out that way. The extra time allowed me to enjoy this city for what it is, a friendly, walkable oasis in the middle of the Canadian prairies. I’m hoping that I’ll be the one who returns for the Spring meeting. I have a feeling it will be even bigger – and better – than this one.

Although I’m flying home to Toronto today I won’t be there for long. Next week I’m headed to Quebec City for the Forum analytique d’affaires SAS with an all-star line-up of guest speakers. I’ll have more on that meeting once it’s done. But for now, it’s a big ‘thank you’ to Regina and ‘hello’ to my hometown.

Until then…

Monday, September 16, 2013

Community the Star on (lucky) Friday the 13th

I frequently and loudly preach the mantra of ‘community, community, community’ through the user group meetings and social media. To me, the real strength of SAS – and the reason for our success as an organization – is because of our dedication to the SAS user community and our longstanding, mutually beneficial partnership. In this the 10th year of SAS Canada sponsoring the user group program it seems more appropriate than ever to give a nod to this strength. It would come to bear as we launched the Fall/Winter 2013 user group season with the TASS user group meeting last Friday in Toronto.

TASS is the ‘grand old dame’ of the Canadian user groups. It precedes not only the formal user group program of SAS Canada, but also SAS Canada the organization. TASS is now in its 26th year of existence and it’s fair to say, doing just fine, thank you! The quarterly meeting has remained the largest and most consistent of the Canadian groups with attendance over the full day usually hovering around 250 people. The success of this group is in no small part thanks to the outstanding Executive Committee. It’s of this rare group of dedicated, selfless individuals I’d like to speak for most of this post.

To set the scene for my story, it’s important to understand that none other than Rick Wicklin – SAS statistician of no small repute and author of famous blog ‘The Do Loop’ – was to be our guest speaker at TASS. Rick was flying up to join 13 of the executive committee and myself for dinner on Thursday night, and then he would be keynoting the statistics-themed meetings. I can tell you that the entire user community in Toronto was buzzing about this, in particular, the statisticians. It’s a rare occasion when a true legend comes to visit, and we were as ready as could be.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature was in an ill-mood and contrived to ground Rick halfway to his destination in New York City. Having spoken to a very dejected Rick, it was clear that he had tried his best and that circumstance and nature were going to ultimately win the day. His closing words to me were spoken while waiting in a ‘3 city-block long line for cabs’. What a horrible experience! Outside of Rick’s safety and comfort we suddenly had another problem to worry about: two significant holes in the agenda.

Here’s where the strength, resiliency and resolve of the SAS community comes in to play. Quickly, two volunteers stepped forward at the dinner table and offered to reprise talks which had been given in the past and also to deliver brand new ones which had never been seen before. A suggestion was made to call up SAS guru Marje Fecht who was planning on attending. With an all-caps ‘EMERGENCY’ subject line, I fired her off a quick note explaining the situation. To my everlasting gratitude, Marje not only called back and indicated she was more than happy to help, but by the time we were having our main courses served, her talk was nearly complete. Unbelievable.

The meeting itself passed by in a blur for me. It was delicate dance of balancing existing content with new and trying to keep the timing correct as best as possible. I can tell you that Tim Gravelle of PriceMetrix and Art Tabachneck of myQNA Inc. both delivered excellent, compelling talks, including picking up some of the slack from the missing talk of Rick’s in the morning. I may also have been in a bit of a daze as my old professor Richard Boire of the Boire Filler Group did lead off the morning with a talk on building successful analytic processes: a real flashback to my post-graduate days.

The afternoon featured Marje’s outstanding talk on SAS Enterprise Guide 5.1 tips and tricks which built nicely on Chris Jiang’s talk on the Data Explorer of the same tool. We offered the Posed Problem Solutions and a strong, strong talk on model tuning in SAS Enterprise Miner by Lorne Rothman of SAS Canada and before I could take a breath (or so it seemed), it was all over. Again, unbelievable.

The strength of community is what made this meeting succeed. In no small way, it’s indicative of the trust, friendship and sense of collaboration which has been finely crafted over 10 years of the user group program. It’s why we all stay involved – whether as a volunteer on an executive committee or as a driver from the SAS Canada side. It’s what keeps this career of mine so much fun, and so rewarding. And it’s why I’ll keep doing it until someone tells me not to – or that I can’t.

I’d like to take a moment to issue a huge ‘thank you’ to the entire TASS executive committee. Their quick thinking, willingness to discuss and explore options and focus on the best rather than dwell on the worst is what made this meeting a huge success. In particular I’d like to thank Art Tabachneck, Tim Gravelle and Marje Fecht for their last minute contributions. Rather than being ‘filler’, their talks all added true value to the meeting.

I’m off to Regina for their user group next: here’s hoping we meet with even a sliver of the same success we had in Toronto! Given the huge turnout and tremendous wave of enthusiasm I experienced last time I was in Regina, I have no reason to think otherwise. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Until then…

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Joie de vivre en Montréal: MONSUG User Group Meeting

Last week I had the pleasure of travelling to Montréal for their user group meeting. As a native Toronto-ite and unabashed hockey fanatic, I’ll admit to consistently having a bit of a nervous edge to me when I first arrive in the city… especially as the route to my hotel typically takes me right past the Bell Centre, the hallowed, sacred ground of the National Hockey League’s Canadiens and the long-time rivals to my own beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. I typically feel like I’ve just splashed my face with cold water as well, given that the majority of the city communicates in French. While I myself am no stranger to la belle langue du Molière, I’m always a little nervous and a little shocked when I try and wrap my tongue around syllables, expressions and phrases little practiced in the Anglophone city I live in. It’s refreshing, invigorating… yet slightly horrible at first.

One thing I can have no complaint about at all is the people I work with in the SAS office and as part of the SAS community in Montréal. From instructors through to support staff, from user group executives through to guest speakers, I’m always floored by the professionalism, warmth and hospitality I’m shown throughout my frequent visits.

Of course, one of my benchmarks for community strength is the ability of a group to pull together a strong agenda utilizing strictly local resources. Once again, MONSUG stood out in this respect. The agenda was populated with local favourites and frequent guest speakers, and the nearly-full room was a testament to the strength of the meeting. Leading off, Mathieu Gaouette shared with us some of his
‘Trésors cachés du SAS Global Forum 2013’. Mathieu and I had both enjoyed a very pleasant SAS Global Forum experience and his take on some of the most helpful tips and tricks which he learned there was certainly welcome.

We also had two other presenters who had frequently delivered talks in Québec: M. Jean Hardy and M. Abdedsselam Bouhia.  Having seen both of them present as recently as the past year in Québec City, I was confident that we were in good hands.

M. Bouhia reprised a talk he had previously given around ‘La segmentation avec SAS’ which proved to be an in-depth dive into the details of why engage in segmentation activities. Finally, M. Hardy delivered a great talk called ‘La puissance peu connue des tables hash’. Hash tables have been popping up for me all across the country this past month: they seem to be in great demand by programmers looking to optimize and speed up their programs. I wonder if this is a side effect of the move towards high performance analytics? At any rate, it was easy to see why Jean has been an instructor of some note for so long. He clearly knows his material, and how to deliver it.

Of course, no trip to Montréal is complete without at least one delicious meal… and I left following a great chat about politics (which city had a more challenged municipal government structure: Toronto or Montréal?), hockey (of course) and the potential for future meetings. It will be the 10th MONSUG meeting in the fall and I think it’s fair to say we have some special things planned! I can’t reveal them now, that would be telling.

As always, you can find the talks from the meeting posted on the MONSUG website shortly, and I can unequivocally say that I’m looking forward to my return trip to la belle province in the Fall. In my immediate future, however, I had to head back to Toronto for the TASS user group meeting taking place at week’s end. I’ll have more on that in shortly.

Until then…

Monday, June 10, 2013

Orcas, Visual Analytics & SAS Dates: An Eye-Opening Trip to British Columbia

Two weeks ago I was soaring towards British Columbia for a bit of work… and a bit of play as well. To be fair, even the work seems like play for me sometimes. It’s truly a blessing to be able to travel all over Canada and connect with friends and acquaintances from the SAS world. Laughs are shared, tales are told and strong bonds of friendship are forged. This trip was to bring together the best of both of these worlds as my travelling companion was Marje Fecht. Marje will be a familiar name to many in the SAS world; not only is she a former SAS instructor and long-time SAS user, she’s also a frequent presenter at user groups across the country. She’s also be known to present more than a time or two at SAS Global Forum and in 2014, she’ll be one-upping herself by acting as the Chair of SAS Global Forum in Washington, DC.  Over the years Marje and I have had many great adventures together and have become strong friends as well as professional supporters. It was a real thrill for me to get out on the road with her again after several years… it had been too long!

Our first stop was the beautiful city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Marje and I had been here four years earlier and we were looking forward to re-connecting with the city and our colleagues. Sure enough, we had a fantastic dinner with the Executive Committee of the SUAVe user group. The talk swung back and forth between politics, user groups, the SAS world, and a whole host of other topics. Marje and I both commented in the meeting the next day how it truly does feel like a load lifts off of the shoulders in Victoria. The casual, relaxed environment and warm, genuine hospitality really go a long way towards minimizing stresses and promoting relaxation. Given that my last five weeks had been spent on the road, this was sorely needed!

The meeting itself took place in the afternoon the following day and featured some great speakers and even better MCing. Peter Ott of the Ministry of Forests, Lands & NRO is not only a great SAS mind, but a really talented host. He connects with the whole room in a way that puts everyone at ease and really promotes dialogue and discussion. Of course, it’s the talks themselves which really stir the proverbial conversation pot… and with Marje offering up her significant experience in her favourite SAS tricks talk, an energized group was never in doubt. Marje also delivered a second talk all around SAS DATES: with so many options out there and so many exceptions to the rule, her talk certainly helped clear up some of the ambiguity and frustration around working with a variety of date forms and lengths. It reminded me of someone trying to learn English as a second language; almost more exceptions than firm rules! Thankfully we had a phenomenal teacher in Marje.

I myself offered a talk around SAS’ Visual Analytics solution… for what felt like the millionth time in the past month! It’s been amazing to see such positive reactions to this new SAS product across the country. It certainly has some fans, that’s for sure. I was more than a little nervous for a few reasons. Firstly, we had received some high priority notes from our IT department that there were some global connectivity issues – a horrible thing to hear when demo’ing from a virtual environment set up in North Carolina. Secondly, the strength and speed of connection makes a huge difference when demo’ing this particular application. Fortunately, everything went off without a hitch.

One of the strengths of user groups is always the local presenters. Victoria always outdoes itself here with a variety of presenters offering a range of techniques for the solution to the open problem. Mike Atkinson also delivered what can only be described as a hilarious talk about his SAS Global Forum experience (which included a karaoke performance in front of several thousand people) and Catherine Bealle Statland garnered high, high praise from Marje as a natural and gifted speaker as she discussed her experience taking an onlinecourse around PROC GLIMMIX.

After bidding some hasty goodbyes, Marje and I were off to the Helijet to take a small helicopter ride across the ocean to the mainland. It was her first time in a helicopter and she was certainly excited! It was great to see and a very enjoyable ride for me as well.

In Vancouver, once again, we met up with Executive Committee members for a spirited dinner session. One spilled glass of wine or someone’s white pants notwithstanding, this was another great example of SAS and customers working together for the benefit of all. Vancouver certainly has a knack for asking for the most support possible with an eye to better supporting their users… and in the spirit of community, I usually deliver. This executive committee of VanSUG is certainly innovative and dedicated; they produce their own newsletter, run a full-day session without a hitch, and really call upon the community of SAS users to support each other.

Once again, Marje was the star of the show in the morning session, delivering her DATES talk and her favourite SAS tricks once again. We also had a ‘surprise’ presentation from Charlotte King of Edmonton who happened to be in town and offered to deliver a talk around a macro solution to dates: a nice bookend to Marje’s in-depth talk and a great example of how SAS users across the country can support each other. We also had a student volunteer to present some work around Facebook data, which as a social media junkie, was interesting to see.

The afternoon session really featured three talks: VisualAnalytics was once again trotted out by yours truly – with some vigorous debate, no less! - and Paulus Mau of BC Hydro offered a really great talk on using Enterprise Guide as an SQL Querying interface. There was also another EG-themed talk which really seemed to resonate with the audience.

I’ll admit to being absolutely exhausted by the time the meeting had concluded. It had been a very long five weeks. I’d been to San Francisco, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Victoria and now Vancouver… and I was ready for a rest. First, however, I was able to celebrate another successful meeting with great friends.

I then high-tailed it out of town for a few days of rest and relaxation on Quadra Island with Marje and her husband Rob, the perfect end to a hectic trip. We ate some amazing seafood, had a very close encounter with a pod of playful orcas, marveled at the size, noise and very strong smell of sea lions, and just enjoyed scenery I don’t ever get to see here in Toronto. I was on pins and needles the entire time as I waiting for news from home from my brother and sister-in-law who were due to deliver my niece into the world at any moment… and what a courteous young lady, she waited until I returned before arriving! I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the trip.

I was thrilled to be able to spend so much time with such great SAS users in British Columbia and I can’t wait to get back in the Fall, albeit in chillier weather, but with the warmth of my friends to help cut through the cold.

Before that, though, I still had a few meetings left to attend beginning with the Montreal SAS User Group (MONSUG). But more on that later.

Until then….

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Even-Steven in Winnipeg

I’ve heard it said that Winnipeg is pretty close to the exact centre of Canada… this supposition has certainly helped inform the title of this particular blog post. I always feel that things end up exactly as they’re supposed to in Winnipeg. A lot of code, a lot of open-mindedness towards other SAS applications, and a really even-keeled group of SAS users.  The meeting of a few weeks ago sure did bear this supposition out in spades as balance was the key to a successful get-together.

I arrived with Tara Holland, our featured guest speaker, after 3 days of amazing camaraderie and great presentations in Saskatoon and Regina. At this point we were certainly seasoned pros in terms of the content we were delivering and the messages we wanted to share. Confident, cool and calm, we joined the meeting clear on what we wanted to share and how we wanted to share it.

Of course, we were not the only folks on the agenda; far from it! Winnipeg user group President Craig Kasper jumped into the breach when a presenter had to pull out at the last minute and delivered a really interesting talk on row-less SET statements. Why would would want to call a row-less table? I’ll let Craig’s talk explain. Suffice it to say, it’s worth a look.

We also has a Saskatoon transplant in Xue Yao who I got to know in Saskatchewan and reconnected with in San Francisco at SAS Global Forum. She had a tremendous introduction to logistic regression which seemed to appeal to many in the room. Given the academic slant of many attendees, it certainly wasn’t out of line.

Not to be outdone, Tara and I offered our talks. As I mentioned we had previously delivered these in Saskatchewan with varying degrees of success…. Darn technology, it lets us down sometimes. Once again Tara offered up her talk around building word clouds in SAS and I did a VisualAnalytics demo. Everything functioned appropriately and the talks were well-received. I was even able to squeeze in a bit of a bonus talk, some information around Enterprise Guide which I thought might be of use to the audience. You know you’re in the zone when you share talks without prompting!  I think the little tips I was able to share may have helped out a lot.

One of the greatest elements of the user groups is the sense of community and I’m very pleased that a transplant from Ottawa has made a strong appearance – and an offer to help – in Winnipeg. Gabriel Toichoa has accepted a role as the Dean of Assiniboine College, and I’m looking forward to future collaboration with him to help improve the group even more.

In the fall we’ll be moving back to our University of Manitoba location and I’m looking forward already to seeing some faces I didn’t get to see this time. Of course, I do hope you’ll join us… and as always you can pick up the talks here if you would like.

It had been a long, long week away from home and really there was only one thing for it: buying excessive amounts of fudge at the airport! Yes, it’s true, they make fantastic fudge in Winnipeg… and although my wallet, my wife and my waistline didn’t thank me, secretly I couldn’t have asked for a better way to close out a great road trip with a great travelling companion.

I had the luxury of a long weekend in Toronto to rest, recuperate and try and catch up on some office work. It had been almost three whole weeks since I had been there, and it wasn’t to be for too long! In fact, in just another four days I’d be flying out to Vancouver and Victoria for their user group meetings. I’m travelling with SAS legend Marje Fecht and I’m sure there will be great stories: there always are.

Until then…

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New Friends & Old: SAS in Saskatchewan is Super Solid

Following a quick stop off in my hometown of Toronto, I was off once again on a jaunt out to Saskatchewan… but this was no ordinary trip. I was launching a brand-new user group in Regina and I’ll admit to being both excited and a little nervous. Registration was tremendous for both the existing group in Saskatoon and for the new initiative in Regina, true… but it’s always a little nerve-wracking all the same. It feels a bit like throwing a party and not really relaxing until people have started showing up. Thoughts race through your mind apace: will people find it valuable? Will they enjoy the meeting? Will they like me? I really hope they like me….

Of course, I had no such illusions around the quality of the guest speaker for both meetings. Tara Holland is a SAS powerhouse and a good friend. As a native daughter of Saskatchewan, it’s always fun to return with Tara to her roots… it’s easy to see where her easy demeanor and wonderful personality come from, it must be something they put in the water throughout her home province.

First stop was a reliable, strong group in Saskatoon. Now, I must admit that my mood was somewhat… coloured for the first 48 hours of my trip. Why? Well, I’m from Toronto and an ardent Maple Leafs supporter. Monday evening was the last playoff game against the Boston Bruins, winner moves on to the next round. I don’t want to describe what happened – it’s too painful, still – but let’s just say that I was getting text updates on my BlackBerry while at dinner with Tara and some executive members the evening before, and it was a very glum end to the meal.

Fortunately, the meeting the next day went a long way towards perking me up once again. In truth it’s hard not to be cheerful in Saskatoon! The populace is so kind, so warm, and have become such good friends over time that I found myself shaking off the disappointment of the previous evening’s hockey game rather quickly. I really had to, truth be told: it was going to be a long couple of days!

Heading back to the University of Saskatchewan is always a treat for me. Our meetings have taken place here consistently over the past 5 years and it was the scene of my very first user group on the road. I’m always reminded of where I came from and how things have changed since then… and for the better, might I add.

The meeting itself was a good mix of programming techniques and newer SAS technologies. Tara led off with a really cool talk around building word clouds using SAS. While great on its own, the talk was a nice set-up for my own Visual Analytics talk which was to come later… or so I thought.  Significant technical challenges prevented me from connecting to the demo environment in North Carolina. Now, I’m a pretty good song and dance artist: I can procrastinate and delay with the best of them. But this was beyond even my considerable skill set. Fortunately, Tara came to the rescue once again with a video walkthrough of Visual Analytics which she had saved and was able to play and walk through. Thank goodness for technology… and at the same time, woe be to we who rely on it too often!

The visualization theme continued in the afternoon with a pair of ODS-themed talks: one giving an introduction to the layout options and a second bringing it into practical focus by demonstrating how it worked. Liying and Jacqueline were a great team here… and it was particularly great to see Jacqueline give a talk once again; she’s a real expert in delivering value from the ground-level up and she’s certainly become a good friend. I’ve missed her as she hasn’t been able to attend the past few talks. Always a pleasure to see you, Jacqueline!

We also had a very technical talk from Masud Rana on ProcMCMC which involved Monte Carlo simulations. I’m not a statistician, so that’s about all I could get out of it. It was a great talk to see, however, as it really demonstrated just how wide the SAS world can be. Thanks Masud for opening some eyes.

Finally, I had a chance to redeem myself from the earlier Visual Analytics disaster with a talk on some handy tips and tricks forEnterprise Guide. Thankfully I was only connecting locally, so this talk ran smoothly! I hope the attendees who were EG users picked up at least a little something here.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that Gopinath Narasimhan delivered a great talk around SAS Global Forum and building apresentation based on the proceedings. It can sometimes be a challenge to find local speakers and I hope that this presentation went a long way towards showing just how easy and fun it can be.

Following the meeting, Tara and I jumped in a rental car for the 2.5 hour drive down to Regina. I have to say, this was one of my favourite parts of the trip. Tara grew up on a farm not too far from Regina and she certainly knew the route very well. She was a great tourguide and I learned a lot: from grain elevators to farming techniques… to an embarrassing admission of my ‘Toronto-ness’ by realizing out loud that black patches I saw on the ground were the shadows of clouds, the trip was full of laughs and fun. And hey: in my defense, we don’t get to see cloud shadows in the city, there’s too much other stuff in the way! On the flat and empty prairies, however, this isn’t a concern.

For my first visit to Regina, I must say I was very impressed with the city. It has a really neat feel to it: modern and bustling, yet most people know each other enough to at least wave or nod hello. We were there for two meetings over two days and I was really looking forward to seeing some familiar faces who had offered to help spearhead the meeting from on the ground.

First up, we had a ‘traditional’ SAS user group meeting. This meant SAS usage tips and tricks from a variety of presenters. One of the many things which impressed me about the group was how two local speakers volunteered to give talks. In my experience, this has NEVER happened! Usually we need to form an executive committee, get people used to the format and flow of the meeting, and then we can start to see volunteers pop up. Not so in Regina! Shaun Kaufmann and Andrew Dyck of Farm Credit Canada both stepped forward with some well-structured, very engaging talks. Shaun talked about the new SAS DS2 programming language which will be rolled out in SAS version 9.4 and Andrew discussed using SAS for simulating portfolio growth at FCC. Both talks were great, drawing rave reviews from no less a critic than Tara Holland herself. Tara has certainly seen a presentation or two in her time and for her to offer up such high praise is truly noteworthy.

Of course, I myself had a pair of talks on the agenda; the same two I delivered (or tried to deliver) the day before in Saskatoon. Fortunately, the internet connection at the Delta Regina was much stronger and I was able to successfully demonstrate and run a Visual Analytics talk. I’m very glad I did as it clearly caught the room off guard: there was lots of praise for the product and for the power it brought to bear.

I closed out the meeting with an appeal for volunteers from the forty-strong attendees. User groups are only as strong as the people who help to plan them out and I do rely heavily on local support to find guest speakers. I was thrilled that Matt Spence – who must be singled out for lifting the heavy load of the sole user group executive committee member for the first few months – was quickly joined by six other individuals from a variety of organizations. I’m looking forward to working with this team! If our lunch conversation was any indication, the Regina group could soon be a model for others in terms of cohesion and effectiveness.

Our final day of meetings in Regina was more in Tara’s wheelhouse than mine: a ‘World of SAS Analytics’ day. The idea here was to try and dive deeper into what it meant to be analytical – both as an individual and as an industry. Tara’s expertise and experience comes from building analytical competency centres so she was certainly the right person to deliver these business-level talks. A good number of attendees had returned from the previous day to take in the meetings and I feel like none were left disappointed: in fact, I was asked for copies of Tara’s talks immediately following the meeting, always a very good sign! You can also find them posted on the Regina website.

I remain incredibly impressed with the good folks of Saskatchewan. Saskatoon offered their usual high level of hospitality and set the bar for collaboration as far as I’m concerned… and Regina has certainly proven itself no slouch with a strong executive committee forming right away with plans already in place for future talks. I can’t wait to get back out to this great province in the fall. Of course, if you weren’t able to attend the meetings you can still pick up the talks at either the Saskatoon website or the Regina website. I do encourage you to come on out in September and October to connect with your fellow SAS users.

I do need to thank Tara in particular for her invaluable help and kindness on this trip. Not only was a great sounding board on a personal and business level, but she went one step further than she had to: we went to her sister’s house as, in her own words, ‘you need a home-cooked meal’. It was so nice to just sit and chat with family in a kitchen, not a restaurant and not room service… and it really summed up the graciousness and general kind nature of the good people of Saskatchewan.

Tara and I had one more trip to take: this time to Winnipeg for their user group meeting. I’ll have more on that in an upcoming post.

Until then….

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A New Venue, A New Attendance Record, A Brave New World for GHSUG

OK, I’m well overdue to write this blog. The GoldenHorseshoe SAS User Group (GHSUG) meeting was a little over two weeks ago, but in my defense, a lot has happened between then and now. I’ve criss-crossed the country with trips to Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg and I'm currently in British Columbia. In some ways I’ve felt like a hamster on a wheel: trying my best to keep the darn thing spinning but all too aware that my energy has been fading. It can be a real challenge to try and keep all of one’s balls in the air during these hectic trips. Having said that, I really can’t offer any excuses: only apologies.

On to the matter at hand, the user group in question. For the first time in recent memory –at least in my capacity as the user group manager – the GHSUG group was meeting in a new location. For over five years we’ve been gathering at the ArcelorMittal-Dofasco offices in Hamilton… I think I could manage the drive in my sleep (and given the early hour of my usual departure to the meeting from Toronto, I think I may have actually done this a time or two). Under the leadership of Ron Kaine, the group has taken some interesting new directions. Ron is a driven man who truly has the best interests of the greater SAS community at heart. Not to say the rest of the executive committee doesn’t, as they certainly do. However, it does need to be pointed out that Ron has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to refine email lists, brainstorm around reaching out to new members, investigate new presenter options and really led by example. One of his suggestions was to change the venue in order to try and attract a greater audience: and boy, did this ever help! Moving our meeting a little closer to the GTA in Burlington in a great space built for hosting meetings paid off in spades with registration climbing over 100 and actual attendance approaching 60. I think the organizing committee – and myself included – were all a little agog at this tremendous increase!

Of course, the agenda itself certainly had a role to play here. In my opinion, the meeting found a great balance between business-level talks and technical tips. The meeting led off with Kirby Sinclair of the Clearcell Group offering a data value management primer. Kirby can drawn on many years of experience and it was all on display during his presentation.  No matter what industry or role, data management is key to successful business best practice. Understanding your data and merging your knowledge with business objectives is a key driver to achieving great results, a maxim which Kirby knows all too well. His thorough and thought-provoking talk certainly had the heads of the attendees nodding in acknowledgement and understanding. It was interesting to note that both SAS users and business professionals peppered Kirby with questions after his talk was finished; it clearly resonated with the audience.

Next up was Divya Joshi of McMaster University. Divya was offering a book review on GLM and NGLM for correlated data. I must admit, I’m often a little skeptical of book reviews. I’ve seen some great ones and some not-so-great ones over the years, and it can very challenging to translate your own interpretation of a work into something which can be easily digested and appreciated by the whole audience. I’m very pleased to share that Divya absolutely knocked it out of the park. Her review was thorough and included what I believe is the magic formula for success with this type of talk. She consistently brought the topic around to her own work in medicine and how she was applying the knowledge she gained through the book in the day-to-day life. This level of detail really helped bring the subject into focus for the entire audience. The only thing better than her book review was the fact that also agreed to join the Executive Committee to help plan future meetings. We’re very glad to have you, Divya!

After a productive networking break we returned with a GHSUG standard: the ‘Proc du Jour’ feature. This is a great element to the meeting which has been mimicked at other user groups and is really a great way to get under the hood of a particular SAS procedure. It’s typically delivered by one of the Executive Committee which virtually guarantees a thorough exploration of the topic. In this case, Barry Hong of US Steel jumped into Proc Transpose. I love when Barry presents as he really knows how to build up a deck from very simple to much more complex knowledge. He’s a seasoned presenter as well, and his relaxed, comfortable demeanor always puts the group at ease. The great thing about  this talk was not only that he showed Proc Transpose from a traditional programming standpoint but also demonstrated how to make use of the same procedure in Enterprise Guide. Everyone in the room – from seasoned SAS coders to new Enterprise Guide users – took something out of the talk.

Finally, it was up to me to bring up the rear with a talk around SAS’ Visual Analytics. Having delivered four demonstrations of this in Calgary and Edmonton earlier in the week, I was certainly comfortable with the topic… if not with the time zone change! I was very pleased that the demonstration went smoothly enough and I certainly did receive quite a few questions following the talk – always a good sign! I will say this, VA is certainly causing a buzz amongst the SAS user community.

Of course, one of the greatest things about the user groups is the networking component. With such a huge turnout for the meeting we definitely had the occasion to meet some new people. I’m very pleased that I was able to connect with four new individuals who are certainly keen on SAS and who have some great questions; I’m hoping that others in the room were able to connect as well! I certainly found Lesley Harschnitz’s networking exercise a great way to connect, a little bit of mystery and guessing games always brings a group together. Here’s hoping we’ve set a great trend for future GHSUG get-togethers. If you weren’t able to attend, I do hope you’ll join us on October 25th, 2013 for our Fall edition of the meeting… and of course, you can always pick up all the talks on the GHSUG website.

I only had a few days of rest before heading back out on the road again to Saskatchewan and Manitoba. I wasn’t kidding when I said that May was a hectic, hectic month for me! However this particular trip was very special as I was helping to launch a brand new user group in Regina…. but more on that soon.

Until then…

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Of Tiny Dancers and Warm Weather: Alberta SAS User Groups Wrap-Up

I’m sailing through clear skies at 33,000 feet with a clear mind… and about time, too! I’ve been fighting a nasty bug for about a week and a half now since I spent time in San Francisco for SAS Global Forum. I must admit that winging my way to Alberta was a daunting prospect given the poor state of my health. Fortunately, all worked out for the best.

I’m in a bit of a reflective mood as I stare out of the window. Below me is a massive, still-frozen lake. Behind me lies a province bathed in sunshine and warmth. Ahead of me, my hometown of Toronto… where I understand it’s 17 degrees Celsius and rainy. I find this all to be an elaborate metaphor for the user group meetings I just attended. The warm, happiness and camaraderie I experienced in Alberta were certainly magnified by my travelling companion and guest speaker Peter Eberhardt. The lake below represents this brief pause to collect my thoughts in the midst of what is an undeniably hectic section of my user group schedule. And ahead of me… well, I don’t know what that represents to tell you the truth. Perhaps I’ve stretched this (already thin) metaphor a little too far.
I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in crime on the road than Peter. He and I have become good friends over the years and he’s always at the top of my list for ‘sought after’ guest speakers. His versatility, affability and willingness to go the extra mile for SAS users carries a lot of weight in my book, to say nothing of his deep knowledge of SAS. We also had the opportunity to reminisce about my very first user group road trip over 5 years ago now. Peter was the guest speaker on that particular trip to Saskatoon and Winnipeg, and we had a good chuckle about how much had changed since those early days. Back then, I had checked my luggage: overpacking for a 4 day trip. Peter was kind enough to instruct me on the art of packing light and I wouldn't be caught dead checking anything anymore! I also recall his eyes bugging out of his skull as I paid for everything with the exception of our hotel rooms in cash. My bankroll made me seem like a Vegas high-roller… or a gangster. Either way, not good. I learned a lot from Peter on that trip and our friendship was born. But on to the meetings at hand: the Calgary SAS User Group and the Edmonton SAS User Group. First stop, Calgary.
It’s always such a great pleasure to travel to Calgary. As I told TASS President Art Tabachneck, it’s the home of my favourite hamburger of all time. There’s something about that Alberta beef, straight from the source. More than that, it’s great to catch up with good friends and colleagues. I had a lot of fun eating dinner on a patio bathed in 28 degree sunshine on the famed ‘red mile’ watching the tiny dancers go by… and trying to figure out what they were doing in Calgary! What are tiny dancers? Well, just what you’d imagine. Picture little miniature dolled-up girls with hair in tight buns, lots of eye makeup and lipstick and a variety of decorations for their hair. The game we played over dinner was to figure out what they were doing in town. After a series of agonizing clues – a snatched glimpse of a program here, a barely overheard conversation there – Peter had enough info to determine (with the help of Google) that it was in fact a cheerleading/team dancing convention in town. That blew my theory of why we had seen such increased attendance for the CSUG meeting out of the water… but it was a lot of fun figuring it out. It’s this type of conversation and good fun which really helps define why the user groups are so special. Where else can you bring together customers, vendors and thought leaders in such a fun way?

The meeting itself was a success as well. The agenda had strong representation from a variety of perspectives. Peter covered off on two very popular topics. The first, hash tables, was the talk that most attendees had come to see and Peter certainly didn’t disappoint. He was able to skillfully walk through a mammoth amount of material in very little time, demonstrating the massive performance difference between hash tables and other SAS techniques. He also discussed how to use SAS to create pivot tables in Excel. It’s an undeniable fact that Microsoft products are still prevalent throughout the business world, so this talk really resonated with most. Peter’s casual style and assertion that the techniques he taught would help any SAS user with their positive perception at work won smiles and nods from the room.

On the high performance analytics front, we had a pair of talks which ended up complimenting each other nicely. Ed Swain of Teradata walked through a variety of hardware options and specifications suitable for high performance environments. This flowed perfectly into my own talk and demonstration around SAS Visual Analytics. It’s always a challenge to demonstrate a product ‘live’ A few hiccups notwithstanding, my machine didn't explode and heckling was kept to a minimum… so I would call it a success.

A quick flight to Edmonton later and Peter and I were at it once again, this time for an enormous group of SAS users. As eSUG President Doug Dover and I both commented to the group, this was by far the largest registration and close to the most sizeable attendance the group had ever seen. Kudos to the executive committee for helping pull together an agenda which had everyone in the room interested and willing to come on out!

Edmonton has adopted a full day model for their meetings. The morning features SAS programming talks while the afternoon focuses more closely on interface-style applications such as Enterprise Guide, JMP and Visual Analytics. The afternoon session was a lot of fun as Peter and I conducted back-to-back interactive sessions around EG and VA respectively. Fun, certainly: lively, definitely: vocally exhausting… well, let’s just say that for someone who is certainly fond of his own voice, even I was getting sick of hearing me talk by the end. Having said that I was glad for the chance to showcase VA from both a retail and health perspective and the feedback and questions were great.

Of course, we can’t forget about the morning session. Chris Cullingham of ATCO Power delivered a great talk around billing rates and received almost as much attention for the manner he presented it as the content itself. He used a great alternative to PowerPoint called Prezi; a dynamic, web-based service which allows for really neat customization of talks. In fact, there were several requests for more talks about Presi: that gives you an idea of the impact it made.

George Zhu offered a talk around hash tables and having just seen Peter’s exhaustive dive the day before, it was great to see his thoughts validated through George’s work. Of course, Peter presented once again but this time of the topic of Perl regular expressions and dates. I’ve seen a few Perl talks over the past user group meetings and I’m really intrigued by this programming language. The room clearly was just as fascinated as I was.

One of the challenges facing all user group meetings across the country is finding local presenters willing to stand up and talk. Jared Prins addressed some of the reasons why in his talk which dispelled some of the barriers and laid out a framework for participation. It would seem his talk worked as we had around 10 people offer to give a talk at an upcoming meeting. Thanks for putting some fears to rest and offering some encouragement as well, Jared! Clearly your time as a livestream-featured presenter at SAS Global Forum has given you even more confidence… and the group will certainly benefit from your experience.

All in all, my trip to Alberta was a rousing success. We had great attendance at both meetings and fantastic talks too. You'll be able to find all the talks shortly at the CSUG and eSUG websites. Most importantly, SAS users from a wide range of backgrounds had the opportunity to meet, network and catch up with old friends. As my manager Wally Thiessen recently suggested, the user groups are about so much more than just the presentations: they’re about making new connections, sharing insight with users from other industries, and having some fun too. I would say that we succeeded in every respect over the past few days.

I’ll get home to Toronto today and I’m quickly off again to Burlington for the GHSUG meeting. This, too, promises to be a notable meeting with record registration and a new location to boot! I’ll have more on my experiences and perceptions of that meeting within the next few days. For now, let me sign off by saying thank-you to Alberta for the great meetings. Look forward to catching up with you all in the fall.

Until then…

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Club SAS de Québec: un triomphe

I’m sitting in a fog and rain-shrouded airport in Québec City following the user group meeting…. and I can’t help but feel like the weather is in some way reflective of the world of SAS at times. It can be difficult to see the way through the mist: there can be surprises ahead which are unseen and unanticipated, and a clear mind and sharp vision are needed to help guide one through. However, through the fog of uncertainty burns the light of knowledge and collaboration, in this over-wrought metaphor, the Club SAS. Although a little contrived it’s certainly true that it does feel as if the presentations and networking act much like a sunbeam burning away the fog and lighting the way to understanding and the correct path. Today’s meeting certainly achieved this in spades.

The talks today principally revolved around traditional SAS programming concerns and tips/tricks. We had a great presentation on ODBC and how SAS accesses it as well as a very in-depth dive around hash objects and an open, frank discussion of the type of errors one might receive… and some solutions around solving them. Each of these talks offered some value to the attendees. Whether helping guide their way through a problematic SAS programming endeavour or helping them to optimize their time spent, each was well-received in its own right.

I should mention of course that the group almost topped out at 100 attendees today: no small feat to be sure! Québec consistently flirts with this milestone, one of only 4 groups across the country with attendance this strong. I feel that this is really one of the most powerful drawing points of the meeting; the ability to connect and collaborate with SAS professionals is a strong enough pull to entice nearly 100 individuals away from their desks early in the week… and in the pouring rain no less!

I’m keeping this entry short because I’m afraid I’m going to spill poutine all over my keyboard… and it’s much better served in my stomach than making a mess on my technology. Suffice it to say that once again Québec City has impressed.

Before signing off, I would like to thank a few of the Executive Committee members who are going to be stepping down. Patrice Bourdages has been a long-time, stalwart member of the group. His responsibilities have taken him elsewhere and his energy and passion will be sorely missed. The same can be said of Ismael Coulibaly, another phenomenal member of the committee. Thank you both for all of your tremendous work.

My next few weeks are going to be spent preparing and attending SAS Global Forum. Every year I promise myself that I will find time to blog about my experiences there… and every year, those same experiences keep me away from doing just that. So this year I’m going to promise nothing and we’ll see how it turns out!

The month of May will be an absolute cyclone of activity for me so you’ll certainly hear a lot from me as time moves forward.

Until then…

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Holistic View of SAS: Health User Group

Last Friday, the SAS Health User Group (HUG) took place in Toronto. I am consistently in awe of this amazing group of professionals… perhaps even over-awed to the point of intimidation, if I’m to be honest. It’s amazing for me to listen to talks which bely such a fundamentally strong grasp of statistics, health indicators and SAS programming… and a little daunting when I’m on the agenda as well. It feels a little bit like a young Luke Skywalker charging into battle with the wily Darth Vader before he was ready. I think we all know what the outcome of trying to play with the big boys before ones’ time can be. I was just hoping I would exit the meeting with both of my hands – and my pride – still attached.

Fortunately, this group is as magnanimous and forgiving as it is intelligent. I’ve always been received well despite my technical shortcomings. Perhaps that’s because the agendas are consistently filled with incredibly strong presenters who’s SAS skills easily compensate for mine. This past Friday was to be no exception to this rule.

I led off the meeting with an overview of the new SAS VisualAnalytics product and I did my best to contextualize it for the health practitioners in the room. The talk centered around fictional data of approximately 3 million individuals with multiple data points and around 150 variables. The purpose of the talk was to visually explore the data without excluding or sampling right away with the goal of finding some trends – so matter how obscure – which could be impactful upon the onset of renal disease in an older population of Type II diabetes sufferers. I mentioned to the executive committee over lunch that the topic was actually quite personal for me, as I recently lost a family member quite suddenly due to complications from renal failure. It’s fair to say I wanted to do the topic justice. I began my talk working with billions of correlations in a basic matrix and worked down to some geo-mapping functionality to show the ease and power of the product. Now I’m no expert – not even close! – but I’d like to think that given the amount of questions which followed the talk, there was enough interest generated to have make the topic worthwhile to bring forward. I’m certainly grateful for the patience of the group as I wrestled through some of the terminology and methodology behind the talk.

Our next presenters took the group in a totally new – and welcome – direction. Yuriy Chechulin and Amir Nazerian of the Ministry of Health detailed how they used advanced modeling techniques to identify highcost users of the healthcare system. The objective of this research was to identify ways to ease the burden on the health community in terms of financial investment and time, as well as to help identify triggers and potential solutions to preventing negative health outcomes in the early stages. I really loved this talk. Even as a non-statistician, I could understand the principles behind the modeling techniques used… and I’m always fascinated by the data which helps inform these decisions. Once again the audience proved to be more than engaged with the topic as they peppered both of the presenters with questions about other potential applications for the model and inquiries around some of the exclusions they had made. It was a shame to have to cut off the questions for our break!

Upon our return, we had three tremendous guest speakers. SAS Canada’s own Judy Orr Lawrence walked us through some data cleansing and validation techniques in SAS Enterprise Guide. While more of an ‘ad hoc’ approach to data cleansing, it remained a very intriguing talk… especially for this long-time EG user. I’ll be giving a few EG talks myself in the coming months and I certainly plan on stealing some of her material (with permission, of course) for the talks. I love the way Judy presents: accessible, thorough and with the ability to keep the topic very high-level or dive very deep. As a frequent student in her classes I can tell you with unbiased certainty that anyone would benefit from her tutelage.

Next up, Ellen Maki gave us a deep dive into how she used Bland-Altman bounds to work towards a new understanding of sleep apnea treatment. Utterly fascinating. As I mentioned at the meeting itself, I’ve had sleep consultations several times and I’ve received wildly different diagnoses on each occasion. Ellen’s talk about the potential of taking future tests at one’s home nearly made me weep with joy: those of you who may have had to experience an over-night visit at a sleep clinic can attest that it is not necessarily the most comfortable of experiences to say the least! Even more importantly, Ellen implied that her data indicated quite strong and clear results in her study which is certainly good news for the future diagnosis and treatment of this very harmful sleep disorder. Her presenting style was extremely relaxed and easy, and I do believe that everyone in the room benefitted from her understanding of how she worked through her tests… and hopefully were inspired for their own work as well.

Finally, the incomparable Ruth Croxford concluded the meeting – in a mournfully abbreviated fashion – with a talk on using Perl expressions within her SAS code. I don’t have enough positive things to say about Ruth. As the President of the Executive Committee, she consistently finds great guest speakers (including herself) and is just such a fantastic representative of the healthcare community. I felt horrible that her talk was truncated due to earlier extended question periods, in no small part because I’ve been fascinated by Perl expressions for a long time and wanted to learn as much as I could about them. In her brief time, Ruth did manage to convey a lot of information. She easily moved through an introduction to Perl and also made it very simple to understand just how they could be leveraged in SAS. She certainly had a few people excited to try the procedure which allows you to do so!

All in all, the meeting was extremely successful. We had a record number of registrations – nearly 120 people – and I’m willing to bet we achieved a record for attendance as well. I give all credit to the fantastic guest speakers and the compelling agenda. Thanks once again to all of our guest speakers and to the Executive Committee who made it all happen! If you weren’t able to attend, not to worry: you can always pick up the presentations on the HUG website or connect with us in the SAS Canada Community I do hope we’ll be able to deliver just as strong a meeting when the Health User Group next meets in person on November 15th, 2013. In the meantime, I’ll be headed to Quebec City for their user group meeting and I’ll be enjoying a trip to San Francisco for SAS Global Forum at month’s end. I’m sure I’ll have lots to say about both meetings, so stay tuned.

Until then…


Monday, March 4, 2013

A Great Start to the 2013 User Group Season

The last two weeks have ushered in the 2013 user group season through the two oldest groups in Canada. Last week, the SAS Halifax Region User Group (SHRUG) held their kick-off meeting on the east coast. I myself wasn't there, so I can't write too much about it... other than to say how jealous I was of my colleague Mark Morreale who did get to attend. From him comments the meeting was as wonderfully typical as it gets for Halifax: a small but strong group which was punctuated by great conversation, strong local presentations and wonderful camaraderie. This past Friday, the Toronto Area SAS Society (TASS) had it's first meeting of the year, and I was most definitely in attendance. It was a great way to kick off the season here in Toronto; TASS has certainly thrown down the gauntlet to the Toronto Data Mining Forum and the Health User Group! I'm quietly confident that they'll give a very good run at matching the energy, enthusiasm and content of TASS.

Of course, it helps that TASS had some serious star power to help solidify a strong start to the season. No less of a SAS luminary than Susan Slaughter made the trip to Canada to serve as our keynote speaker. I must admit, I gushed like an Apple fanboy at the release of a new Apple-branded... well, anything. When I was completing my post-graduate work at George Brown College it was the last version of 'The Little SAS Book for Enterprise Guide 4.1' which included a working demo disk that became my temporary SAS bible. In fact, I actually had to get a second copy because of the extreme wear and tear throughout the years. I can directly credit Susan and her co-author Lora Delwiche for helping me develop my early SAS skills... or perhaps blame is a better word? At any rate Susan was wonderful and approachable in real life; she clearly loves SAS and was an inspiration to the many new and seasoned users who attended the TASS meeting.

Susan offered three separate talks. The first was one which had some appeal to everyone, an introduction to macro programming. Macros are phenomenal for efficiencies: as Susan said in her talk, 'think about it like writing a program that writes a program'. It really didn't matter if you were a new programmer or a savvy SAS veteran: the methodical nature of the talk ensured that everyone was introduced or reminded of the best practices to keep in mind when leveraging this powerful option. A side benefit: I learned that Susan is a passionate bicyclist! As a loud proponent of giving a personal as well as professional view of one's image, it was nice to be able to relate to Susan outside of the SAS framework.

After offering up a break-out session around how to become a SAS author - a session that had the break-out room overflowing - Susan would energize the afternoon session with her talk around summary tables in Enterprise Guide. I've given a talk or two which featured this particular task previously, but Susan's step-by-step approach was much better suited for the newer Enterprise Guide users in the audience... and to be honest, I learned a few things myself. For example, if you impose a condition on a variable through the wizard, that condition will remain on the variable even if it's removed. That could explain a lot of the strange results I've received from some of my pet projects. I'll be re-running them while bearing this in mind, to be sure!

Of course, Susan wasn't the only star of the agenda. In fact, the rest of the meeting was jam packed with SAS goodness.  In the morning session, Wayne Levin of JMP software fame navigated a few pitfalls (or pickle-falls, more appropriately) to successfully demonstrate some of the capabilities of JMP. The demo gods were not smiling on Wayne initially but his quick thinking and knowledge of his data allowed his to swiftly switch his presentation nearly seamlessly. TASS President Arthur Tabachneck also delivered his usual high-quality work, showcasing a talk which he will be delivering at the Midwest SAS User Group and potentially at SAS Global Forum as well. Art always blows me away with his talks: he seems to effortlessly find ways to make SAS work better, faster and more innovatively... and almost always through his collaborative work with his fellow SAS gurus from all over the world. His talk on transposing SAS data sets certainly continued this trend. In the afternoon, Chris Battiston really got under the hood of ODS and also bravely popped open a spontaneous live demo while really showcasing how a little curiosity and knowledge can go a very long way. Finally, the solution to the posed problem was a real hit. Not only did it fortuitously build on Susan's summary table talk, but we also had four separate contributors. Jim Burkhardt did a great job of MCing the solutions and each presenter gave a simple - but elegant - walkthrough of each. You can see all the solutions here: great job, guys!

Finally, I myself got into the spirit of the live demo by showcasing the new SAS Visual Analytics suite. It was a lot of fun to see a favourable reaction from the audience. I can understand why, as it's tremendously powerful and versatile, and the data I was working with was relative to all. Using over 169 million records with 60 variables, I was able to quickly run forecasting routines and drill into global variables to demonstrate how powerful visual analytics can be. I hope it was well-received, because it sure was fun to deliver. At the very least, I hope that the opportunity to demo the solution yourself - a SAS first! - was enough of a takeaway to make the session valuable. I encourage all readers to do so as well, whether by industry or job role. You can find out more on the official Visual Analytics site.

We're already building towards the June meeting, believe it or not... and we've also secured a very special guest speaker for September... but much more on that later down the road. In the interim you can check out the presentations from the last meeting here, and stay tuned for information about upcoming TASS sessions as well. You may also want to join us in the SAS Canada Community where discussion is ongoing, all the time. We hope to see you there!

Next for me: the eye of the hurricane, the calm before the storm... or perhaps the darkest night before the morning? I'm in a quiet state until mid-April with next to no travel or activites until then. But rest assured, when things get going they just won't stop! May and June will be hotbeds of activity. So stay tuned for more thoughts from the road.

Until then...