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Analyzing Problems Using Computer Applications

Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

Sometimes it's all about the right tool for the job. When solving problems in the modern era, we have a multitude to choose from. In this lesson, we'll explore how computer applications can be used to solve problems in math, engineering, and physical sciences.

New Problems and New Solutions

Information technology (IT) does not exist in its own vacuum. No longer does IT refer to a lone programmer, bashing out code on a computer in a dark basement somewhere. IT has connections to every component of our lives, from a smart thermostat to social media to cars. IT applications can help us solve problems from the everyday to the complex.

We'll discuss some of these applications in the realms of math, engineering and physical sciences. You may still be thinking that this requires a high level of programming skill. While that still is true for some problems, there are everyday applications that can be used to solve problems.

Big Data and Data Analysis

You may have heard the term big data, which refers to huge data sets. Think of social media data, sports data, data about the universe, traffic data, etc. The list goes on. With the explosion of storage space and the need to make sense of this data, we need more powerful tools to analyze this data and find trends.

In mathematics and engineering, the big data lets us run simulation models and make predictions.

Computation and Searching

Performing calculations on paper for a few dozen engineering projects doesn't sound so daunting. But what if you needed to compute millions? Or you needed to search traffic data for specific scenarios regarding volume, weather, road type, etc.? Again, the right tool for the job makes all the difference.

In order to attack these modern problems, we need tools that will aid our efforts. These tools include spreadsheets (Microsoft Excel), databases, and other math packages/programs.

Spreadsheets

Microsoft Excel is a powerful tool that a majority of us have access to. Not only can it help your family track its budget, but it can help in solving mathematical and engineering problems.

Practical Example

Excel is more than just a tool for summing columns and finding averages, although most of us use the tool that way. For example, Figure 1 shows the simple SUM function for sales data.


Figure 1: SUM Function
Excel SUM function


You can even solve the problems graphically in Excel.

Consider the following data set in Figure 2.


Figure 2: Data for Excel
Graphic data


Be sure all data is selected. Click Insert and then select a Scatter graph as shown in Figure 3:


Figure 3: Select Scatter Graph
Select Scatter Graph


The result is shown in Figure 4.


Figure 4: Scatter Graph
Scatter Graph Result


Databases

Behind all of this big data, and even behind your uncle's recipe collection, is a database. A database is a container for data. It doesn't have to be on a computer, but for our purposes, we're talking about electronic tools.

You may already have Microsoft Access installed on your computer. This database application can be used to store, organize, and search data. Other databases include:

  • MySQL
  • SQL Server
  • Oracle
  • DB2

The previous databases are older and more established. However, there are newer databases in the field as well. The following table lists the database and its function.

Database Function
Neo4J; Datastax; Enterprise Graph Graph databases: used for data display and graphical representation of connections (think of a map of your connections on social media)
Mongo DB; Couchbase Document storage, and is useful for data that isn't always consistent across systems
Elasticsearch; Solr; Splunk Search engine database; best used when performing text searches.

Although there are many flavors of databases out there, most of them are still built upon the standard language for database administration: SQL.

SQL

Pronounced See-Quell, SQL stands for structured query language. It is the standard for database inquiries across multiple different types of databases. SQL can even be used to update, delete, and manipulate data. Whether it is Microsoft Access, MySQL, Oracle, SQL Server, they all speak some flavor of SQL. The most-used statement in SQL is SELECT.

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