Leading the new age of data management

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) honours pioneer Tamer Özsu, a Waterloo computer science professor

By Joe Petrik

David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science

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Dr. M. Tamer Özsu, a professor in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer ScienceA computer science professor whose fascination with data management began before formal database systems even existed, has been recognized for his work by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Tamer Özsu, a professor in the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science and world leader and pioneer in data management, has been named a Fellow of AAAS for his principled contributions to database systems research, education and service.

“We are entering a new age of data management,” Özsu says. “The advancements we’re seeing today are similar to the leaps we saw in the 1970s and 1980s, when traditional relational databases were being created, implemented and expanded.”

Özsu’s interest in data goes back to 1976, when he was a part-time graduate student in industrial engineering while working at the Turkish postal administration to develop a searchable directory.  “We were struggling to figure out how this could be done, what data structures to use, and how to lay it out so users could submit queries in multiple ways,” he says.

At the time, Özsu was taking a graduate course that introduced the topic. “We had a visiting professor from the US who was teaching a course when a lightbulb suddenly lit up. I thought, ‘Ah, this is the way to solve the problem!’ and I was hooked on database systems ever since.”

From kilobytes to exabytes

Of course, much has happened since those days when the contents of a relational database were measured in mere kilobytes and the entries were like business accounts with data arranged neatly in rows and columns.

Now, more than 2.5 exabytes of data are created every day. This mind-boggling tsunami of information — 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 new bytes of it daily — comes from an almost equally bewildering variety of sources, from archives of scanned documents, financial transactions and online articles, to more recent sources such as posts, pictures and videos uploaded to social media sites. Even voice requests on smart phones contribute to this ever-growing deluge of data.

To make sense of such volumous and complex datasets, Özsu’s research explores distributed and parallel data management and applying database technology to non-traditional data types, particularly what’s known as graph data. Graph representations are used to capture the structure of extremely large data sets.

Interest in graphs has gained momentum

“Graphs have always been important data types for database researchers, but with the exponential growth of social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, interest in managing very large graphs has gained much momentum,” he says. “By taking information and presenting it as a graph, all kinds of insights can be extracted. For example, how do you find friends of friends of your friends on Facebook? This task is an example of a graph query, in which each node or intersection represents someone’s mutual friend and each connection represents the relationship.”

What’s different today is the unprecedented volume, variety and velocity of data being created. Some data is structured, even more is unstructured and much of it is heterogeneous and often dirty, but once the data is no longer siloed, it can be analyzed to reveal many insights.

Özsu is Waterloo’s fourth professor to be named an AAAS Fellow. Previous AAAS Fellows are Heather Douglas, Waterloo chair in science and society, Arthur Carty, former executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, and Raymond Laflamme, former executive director of the Institute for Quantum Computing.

“Congratulations to Tamer for being named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,” says Mark Giesbrecht, director of the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science. “He joins an accomplished group of colleagues globally whose scientific achievements have been recognized by the world’s largest general science society.”

This year, AAAS has awarded the prestigious distinction of Fellow to 396 of its members for their efforts toward advancing science applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished. New Fellows will be presented with a certificate and a gold or blue pin — representing science or engineering, respectively — on Saturday, February 17, 2018 at the AAAS Fellows Forum during the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas. They will be announced formally in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science on November 24, 2017.