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John Sall standing in front of painted, blurry backdrop

From Big Data to Big Statistics

By Debbie Farris
John Sall, co-founder and Executive Vice President of SAS Institute, Inc.

Now that we have Big Data, we face new challenges. Depending on your view, it’s either an incredible opportunity for all of us or a large, looming crisis. The College of Science held its Distinguished Lecture October 31. John Sall, co-founder and Executive Vice President of SAS Institute, Inc., discussed how to effectively analyze Big Data in order to find meaning and significance in the plethora of information.

Sall was also one of the developers of JMP statistical software that has dynamically linked statistical analysis with the graphical capabilities of Macintosh computers since 1989. Now running on Windows and Macintosh, JMP continues to play an important role in modeling processes across industries as a desktop data visualization tool, a business solutions tool, and an academic research tool. The limitless opportunities of Big Data to enhance and accelerate innovation in research, technology, business, science and education requires a methodical approach and a streamlined work flow. With many meanings of Big Data being bandied about, Sall puts it this way. “From a wide view of Big Data, there are simply too many things to look at. But screening for just the big effects can cause selection bias. When graphing probability values, all the good ones bunch together near zero. With tall data, everything is significant, but many effects are too small to care about. With holes and bumps all over data, something automated is needed to adapt to them.” To find out why Big Data should matter to you and how to resolve all of this, come hear Sall shared his insights about Big Statistics analytic work flow and how people can use it to make decisions. “Statistical analysis and data science are a key to discoveries and innovation,” says Sastry Pantula, Dean of College of Science.

“Extracting useful knowledge from Big Data in a timely fashion is not only useful for businesses and the government, but also useful for drug discovery and healthcare (healthy people), climate modeling and sustainability (healthy planet) and for security and economic development (healthy economy).”

Data analysis yields insights into a wide range of subjects from the environment, marine studies and human health to the humanities and business. People who can apply value and meaning to real-time data are in increasingly high demand. In fact, a recent study predicted a work-force gap of 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to decipher and translate data patterns for decision-making (McKinsey & Company).

Who knew data analysis could be fun? Recently the Harvard Business Review called data science the sexiest job of the 21st century. Statistical, mathematical and computational sciences graduates would seem very qualified to fill that role and those well-paying jobs, leading to a rewarding career. To meet this explosive demand in the market, the College of Science is developing a master of science in data analytics and planning to launch in the fall of 2015.

As we grapple with Big Data today, it’s helpful to look back through history for context. The 1970s were characterized by a spirit of discovery in science and technology. Sall established SAS with several partners in 1976. He designed, developed and documented many of the earliest analytical procedures for Base SAS® software and was the initial author of SAS/ETS® software and SAS/IML®.

Then in the late 1980s, researchers and engineers needed an easy-to-use and affordable stats program. So SAS launched a new software product, JMP to dynamically link statistical analysis with the graphical capabilities. Sall remains the lead architect for JMP.

In 1998, Sall was elected a Fellow of the American Statistical Association in 1998 and has held several positions in the association's Statistical Computing section. He serves on the board of The Nature Conservancy, reflecting his strong interest in international conservation and environmental issues. He also is a member of the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Board of Trustees.

Watch the video of John Sall's presentation.