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Millennium Prize illuminates
big data in Finland

By David J. Cord, May 2014

Photo: Rick English/TAF
Millennium Technology Prize, award ceremony, Technology Academy Finland, Stuart Parkin, Hannu Jaakkola, Tampere University of Technology, SkySQL, Patrik Sallner, Helsinki, Finland
Smiling scientist: Stuart Parkin wins the 2014 Millennium Technology Prize, a one-million-euro award from Technology Academy Finland.

Big data is revolutionising the way we work and live. The Millennium Technology Prize is being awarded in Helsinki to a big-data innovator, and Finnish companies and universities are showing off their expertise as well.

Every day data equivalent to nearly 400,000 times the content of the US Library of Congress is created. It might seem impossible to store such vast amounts of information, or find something particular in such a flood, but some people are bringing order to chaos. This is the realm of big data, where Finland possesses particular national strengths. 

“Big data” refers to large and complex sets of data. The Large Hadron Collider needs to store information from 150 million sensors. Amazon must handle millions of queries from customers each day. Google has to be able to efficiently analyse information for the one billion people who use its search engine. All of these are examples of big data.

Storing such massive amounts of data would be difficult without the innovations of physicist Stuart Parkin, winner of the 2014 Millennium Technology Prize, awarded by Technology Academy Finland (TAF). He receives the prize for pioneering a 1,000-fold increase in the storage capacity of magnetic disk drives. 

“This led to an explosion of data acquisition and storage capacities underpinning the evolution of large data centres, cloud services, social networks, and data and video distribution online,” said TAF chairman Stig Gustavson at the ceremony announcing the winner. “For individuals, it meant access to vast libraries – indeed, access to all the books in the world ever written.”

Education and research forge ahead

Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Lehtikuva
Millennium Technology Prize, award ceremony, Technology Academy Finland, Stuart Parkin, Hannu Jaakkola, Tampere University of Technology, SkySQL, Patrik Sallner, Helsinki, Finland
A maintenance worker bikes past part of the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The collider needs to store data from 150 million sensors.

In west-central Finland, Hannu Jaakkola of the Tampere University of Technology says his colleagues and students are immersed in big data. Recently they recruited a post-doctoral researcher to work on big data in finance. With a demand for such expertise, Finnish educational institutions are contributing a highly skilled workforce for the sector.

“We have added elements of big data in the curriculum, and we have also focused some of our research work in the area,” Jaakkola says. “Big data is not only big data, but it also includes related skills that make applicability of it possible. Big data skills are in high demand in the employee market.”

He cites a number of Finnish groups which are researching technologies related to big data, such as the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation (known by its Finnish abbreviation, Tekes) and the strategic centre for science, technology and innovation, Digile. 

“Finland’s strengths come from the good infrastructure and high technical level, good education level and the ability of Finns to adopt new technologies,” says Jaakkola. “We are forerunners in many sectors.”

Big data and the cloud

Photo: Mikko Stig/Lehtikuva
Millennium Technology Prize, award ceremony, Technology Academy Finland, Stuart Parkin, Hannu Jaakkola, Tampere University of Technology, SkySQL, Patrik Sallner, Helsinki, Finland
Patrik Sallner, CEO of SkySQL, says that the volume of data being generated and processed will continue to grow exponentially.

On the leading edge of this movement is the Finnish company SkySQL, which specialises in a relational database management system called MariaDB. While Stuart Parkin’s innovations helped make the storage of enormous amounts of data possible, that data still needs to be accessed and managed. 

“SkySQL is a leading provider of open-source database platforms,” says SkySQL’s CEO Patrik Sallner. “That is the technology for storing and searching data. It goes hand-in-hand with big data and the cloud since both technologies are typically built on open-source technologies and need effective data management capabilities.

“Cloud computing is a way of running software applications on many connected computers at the same time. It flexibly adapts the capacity available, based on the needs of the user. Big data is naturally suited to run on cloud since it consumes a lot of computing power and the computing capacity needed may vary abruptly.”

Sallner explains that companies and organisations need to manage data on an ever-greater scale, access it reliably and process it effectively during their operations. Groups like Hewlett-Packard, Harvard University and Fujitsu have become clients of SkySQL.

“The volume of data generated and processed will continue to grow exponentially as new technologies, like the ones Stuart Parkin developed, are deployed,” Sallner says. “The evolution is similar to Moore’s Law, which describes how the processing power of computer chips doubles every 18 months. This enables and also requires continuous innovation in the tools that allow people to convert this data into valuable insights and improved services.”

See also on thisisFINLAND

Good taste with passion – 21 years rewarded (Linus Torvalds, 2012 winner)
Hopes for the future convene at Millennium Youth Camp (videos) 


Technology Academy Finland
Tampere University of Technology

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