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Game-changing work with the NBA and more from one of world's top ten computer science departments

Research in Action showcase highlights research by graduate and undergraduate students and entrepreneurs

Keith Boyarsky, analytics consultant for the Toronto Raptors, who is working with computer science student Jackson Wang on "Neural network for professional basketball" project

What do the Toronto Raptors and mobile advertising have in common? 

You can find the answer at department of computer science’s Research in Action showcase, April 15.  But here’s a hint: both seek to improve performance and both are tapping into the research talents of University of Toronto computer science students.

From discovering ways to augment our reality by combining computer-generated information with real-life imagery, to developing artificial intelligence helpers so that we can be more productive, computer science is a field in constant transformation, says Sven Dickinson, chair of the department – and it’s changing the way people work, play and interact through technology.

“Research in Action is an opportunity for us to share with our alumni, industry, government and university and community members the high level of graduate and undergraduate research taking place in the department,” says Professor Dickinson.

Now celebrating its 50th year, the computer science department at U of T was recently ranked among the top 10 computer science departments worldwide in the prestigious Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities. Research in Action, an annual event, highlights a cross-section of the most current research in the department – and gives those attending a chance to explore such award-winning projects as Pitfall Planet, the indie video game recently showcased at Level Up.

Also among the more than 50 projects on display: “Neural network for professional basketball,” by grad student Jackson Wang and “Data mining and machine learning in mobile app advertising,” by applied grad students Lubna Khader, Megha Lakshmi Narayanan and Guilherme Trein.  

Wang’s research improves the tools the National Basketball Association's Toronto Raptors use for their game analysis. Wang’s supervisor, Professor Richard Zemel, introduced him to Eric Khoury, coordinator of basketball operations and analytics for the Raptors. 

Khoury was looking for someone with expertise in machine learning to help improve their game play. Wang, a sports fan himself, was thrilled to tackle a project that combines one of his favourite sports and his field – and they've been working together since last season.

Wang created an machine learning algorithm that allows the analysts at the Raptors to predict the likelihood of the different outcomes given a shot, and factors that influence the shot such as player identity, shot location, his match-up and so on. The analysts use this tool to improve upon their answers to strategic questions.  

“The team’s analyst can use this to answer questions that they or the coaches want to know,” said Wang.“But I signed a confidentiality agreement with them so I can't really get into specifics.”

The Master of Science in Applied Computing (MScAC) is known as the department’s professional program in which students complete both eight months of study followed by an eight-month applied research internship. Students Khader, Narayanan and Trein completed internships with Addictive Mobility, one of Canada’s largest mobile advertising companies. 

The team’s research involved extracting information from a large set of data, more commonly known as Big Data. They developed a profiling system that predicts age, gender and consumer behaviour. 

“The research will help Addictive Mobility’s clients optimize their campaigns and engagement with the client’s users,” said Khader. “Research in Action gives us a chance to show how our research can evolve into products and meaningful services for a company.” 

In 2014, Addictive Mobility supported the department’s applied program with a scholarship for MScAC students.

This year’s Research in Action received support from International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). The event is open to the public from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Leslie and Anna Dan Galleria. 

Orbelina Cortez-Barbosa is a writer with the department of computer science at the University of Toronto.