IBM Research Division Tackles Analytics, IT Services, Health Care

By Scott Ferguson  |  Posted 2010-09-09

IBM Research Division Tackles Analytics, IT Services, Health Care

YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y.-"Watson" isn't brushing up on any trivia today.

Watson, now maybe the world's most well-known supercomputer (with its own New York Times Magazine profile to prove it), is half hidden behind a black curtain and stationed in the mock "Jeopardy" studio that IBM has built inside its massive T.J. Watson Research Facility here.

During a recent visit there, IBM engineers could be seen tweaking Watson, which, though based on some of the same technology as the company's other Blue Gene supercomputers, utilizes natural-language capabilities. Although Big Blue is still testing Watson against "live" Jeopardy contestants, the supercomputer is expected to appear on the real game show sometime later this year.

While Watson, much like its chess-playing predecessor, Deep Blue, is an impressive way for IBM to capture the public's imagination, the supercomputer is only a small part of what goes on at the Watson facilities, both here and in neighboring Hawthorne, N.Y.

What is really driving a small but growing part of IBM's research these days is analytics, which is essentially a discipline that uses mathematics and data to arrive at the most optimal decision. For years, IBM research and math departments have played a key role in the company's research; now the company tapped these scientists and researchers to be part of its massive Global Services Division.

One day, in fact, Watson could find itself, rather than on TV, part of this very same analytics push--specifically focusing on health care, where its language software and massive computational ability could assist in the areas such as molecular biology and genomic sequencing. As part of this direction, IBM is looking to increase the number of people in its math department from about 110 to 200 or so, especially concentrating on those with expertise in very specific fields of study, including operations research, machine learning and statistics.

"We are looking for special people. We don't want people in the ivory tower," said Baruch Schieber, manager of Business Analytics and Optimization at IBM Research. In other words, he is looking for mathematicians interested in real-world work. "We want people to get in here and understand how people manufacture and how companies distribute their goods from the warehouse to the supermarket."

Large IT companies, from IBM and Oracle to Hewlett-Packard and Dell, all have services divisions, which are becoming increasingly competitive and lucrative. In a recent report, IDC found that global IT-services spending is slated to grow from $573.4 billion this year to $685 billion by 2014. When IBM announced its financial 2010 second-quarter results, the services division reported a 2 percent increase in revenue, to $13.7 billion.

IBM's approach to IT services is somewhat different from that of other companies. It  is able to tap into its own massive research division and incorporate in-house scientific research, such as analytics, into a business division such as Global Services. For the past year, IBM has highlighted this approach in its Smarter Planet initiative, but the concept actually goes back to 2002, when IBM bought PricewaterhouseCoopers. This began a nearly 10-year effort to bring more research and analytics into the services division.

Schieber explained that, though IBM has been talking up its particular approach to IT services for the past few years, applying analytics to business problems actually goes back about 20 years, to when IBM worked with American Airlines on a customized fleet-and-crew scheduling project.

 IBM researchers work within two different disciplines of analytics, which then come together. The first is business analytics, which uses data to make predictions and forecasts; the second is optimization, which combines predictions and business constraints to produce an outcome and plan to meet differing objectives.

A recent example of this cooperative process is a project with the New York State Department of Taxation to collect tax revenue owed to the state. 

First IBM research looked at the situation, researched the historical data and applied both types of analytical methods to the problem. The company then came up with a combination of software-including data warehouse, database management, and business intelligence-to determine which people would respond to a simple letter from the tax division and which ones would require a full-scale audit.

IBM Tackles Health Care


These days, however, IBM researchers spend a good deal of time working on issues related to health care.

With this year's passage of major health reform from the federal government, Chalapathy Neti, associate director and global leader of Healthcare Transformation at IBM Research, has been looking at ways to determine, among other things, how health care organizations can meet new requirements for EMRs (electronic medical records) and rules related to "meaningful use." This is important because, in order for health care providers to tap into federal money, they must demonstrate meaningful use of EMRs under federal guidelines.

"Adopting these electric systems changes your care and especially the clinical outcomes," said Neti. "What analytics tries to do, once an IT system is implemented, is determine how you measure the metrics for -meaningful use.'"

More specifically, Neti and his IBM researchers are working on ways to enable access to data that is stored in different proprietary systems, which has made it impossible for doctors and health care providers to pull together all the information they need to make EMRs work. In February, IBM bought Initiate to bring even more analytics know-how to bear on the EMR problem.

"This allows us to begin aggregating data from multiple systems with different types of proprietary formats and have them all come together into a single data model with a common format, which then lets us to analyze that data," Neti said.  

Eventually, these technologies will turn into a new discipline called "unstructured data analytics," which will allow for the collection of more than just patient records. It will include information from clinical notes and pathology reports to better track diseases and recognize trends.

Health care analytics is also finding a home in the hospitals, themselves. IBM is working with Dr. Carolyn McGregor and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology to develop new hardware and software that will enable the use of real-time data within neonatal care units.

Specifically, McGregor-who has doctorate in computer science and a background in business intelligence and data warehousing-wants to take the large amounts of data that comes in from medical devices throughout the hospital and analyze the information in real-time instead of storing the records in a database and examining it later.

By looking at data in real-time, physicians will be able to better monitor the health of these babies which, quite possibly, could defend against serious, even fatal, infections.

 "In the traditional approach, you extract the data and dump it into a data warehouse every 24 hours and then you run algorithms overnight. . . . By the time you look at it the next day, the baby could already be showing the clinical signs," McGregor old eWEEK in a telephone interview.

Initially, McGregor and some other researchers had built their own system using an event-processing paradigm to analyze data in real-time. That team learned a lot about receiving the data from medical devices, but calculating all that information proved very complex.

 "My next hurdle was to figure out how to build an engine that does this processing, and build one in a way that we could create a number of different analytic-watching mechanisms to keep an eye out for different conditions," McGregor said.

Serendipitously, at a 2007 conference in Toronto, McGregor met IBM researchers who were already working with on a new initiative called InfoStream, which uses IBM's DB2 database software and third-party technology to apply algorithms to data coming in from medical devices.

 "They approached me at the conference and we talked about what my clinical problem was. We talked about how we could take the principals of the functionality that I needed and represent that within the Streams context," said McGregor.

Currently, the research conducted by both McGregor and IBM is being tested in a pilot program at the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto. If all goes according to plan, a clinical trial is slated to begin in 2011.

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