Written by Maureen McNamee for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Blog
When the cofounders of an ambitious young tech company in Calgary offered to share their creative skills with the Calgary Philharmonic in 2018, they weren’t referring to musical talent. Robert Mereau and Peter Guo both studied quantum physics at the University of Calgary and worked at the YMCA before starting White Whale, a local company that dives into big data to identify patterns and help organizations and businesses address their challenges.
Rachel Wilson, White Whale’s business development associate, says data analytics and AI can help deliver solutions for a variety of different industries —energy, real estate, professional sport, not-for-profit, and more. In the arts, for example, audience preferences and behaviours can help determine event ticket prices, performance schedules, or gallery arrangements. White Whale applies these pattern-identifying principles to predict revenue and sales based on different configurations and limited capacity — an important consideration as organizations navigate COVID-19 public health measures.
In the six years since it started, White Whale also had its own challenges to overcome, including how to share the data in a way people could easily understand. The result was DeepSea, an analytics and AI platform that communicates the information clearly using a visual format and supports analytics with Python functions. Wilson says one of her favourite visualizations was a bird’s-eye view of the Jack Singer Concert Hall with different bubbles showing the contribution various seats and sections made towards revenue. “We focus on doing everything we can to help you see the story the data has to tell and provide a clear line of sight into what to expect given a set of operating conditions.”
White Whale. DeepSea. Bubbles? Wilson says the nautical theme wasn’t deliberate at first, but then they ran with it. “It has a bit of symbolic value, especially given that the image of the white whale is a big part of the allegory of Moby Dick,” she adds. “The endless pursuit of knowledge is something that is really fundamental to us and has informed a lot of the decisions and processes that we’ve taken over the course of our lifetime, so we definitely embrace the unintended attachments that come along with the name.”
Chatting with Wilson, it’s no surprise that she prefers the term STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) to STEM. She says the arts and humanities are an important part of White Whale’s work because it takes empathy and creativity to understand and solve other people’s problems. The arts are also an important factor in the city’s efforts to become a hub for technology and innovation, a burgeoning scene that White Whale is proud to be part of. “The tech industry is commonly filled with young talent who seek out that vibrance when they’re choosing a place to live and plant their roots,” she says. “I think that’s really important — and Calgary has an amazing arts community.”
The company’s commitment to community and the arts was behind its decision to take on projects with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra after being introduced by one of the society’s board members. “The Orchestra is a cornerstone of Calgary’s community and culture,” Wilson says. “As someone who was not born and raised here, I feel like I can see that clearly. The opportunity to work with them is a real honour for us.
“And it doesn’t go unnoticed that the Calgary Phil is committed to doing things differently and maintaining that really insightful, creative perspective,” she adds. “As a young tech company with a bold vision, that resonates with us — the commitment the Calgary Phil has made to making the experience accessible and inclusive and of the highest quality is so impressive.”
On the flip side, technology also has tremendous potential to benefit the arts and other not-for-profits, as White Whale has demonstrated through its partnerships with the Calgary Phil, YMCA, United Way, and Vivo, and other organizations it considers fundamental to the community. “There are a lot of problems data analytics and AI can solve and being able to seek those out and deliver them is rewarding and very fulfilling, but also beneficial to us,” Wilson says. “It helps us reimagine how we can deliver solutions, tell stories in ways that make sense but are really creative. It’s mutually beneficial.”