Data Science ‘up North’

So about 2 years ago I reached out to a fellow MSc student through Linkedin who was studying via Distance Learning. It turns out he was a chap based in San Francisco working at a big credit card company. His job title was ‘Data Scientist’ which I thought was novel. It turns out his job was developing methods and algorithms for detecting credit card thefts. We exchanged a couple of emails, general stuff about our plans after the course. He explained how the ‘data scientist’ role was starting to become big over there (USA). So I wondered, what is a data scientist? Why don’t we have any jobs like that around here?

What I found was these types of jobs are popular in London with the big financial companies and the emerging high tech companies with salaries ranging upwards of £60k per annum. Sounds a lot to a northerner but with higher living costs and  as stated by Partridge (2002) “I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated” it raises the question, is it worth the move?

Slightly further a field, Cambridge also seems to have a high demand for Data Scientists as the city attracts more and more research arms of companies such as Philips and Microsoft. But as we move further up north the demand starts to drop, why?

My thought process?

Is it because we don’t have any businesses which will benefit from a data scientist?

I started thinking about this and it is true, we don’t have the big financial institutions or the large ‘high tech’ companies. But we do have some big companies. Just thinking in Hull alone we have BP, BAE SYSTEMS, Smith and Nephew, Reckitt Benckiser, ARCO and many more (I got bored thinking of more, sorry).  But then we add another question, how many data scientists does one company need?

But then I also thought back to a couple of companies I have worked for, a door manufacturer (£4 million turn over), a ship repair company (now with about a £8 million turn over). But neither of these companies would ever think about hiring a data scientist. But why? The answer is easy, they don’t what what a data scientist is or how they can help their business.

Lets look at me, I have a degree in IT and 15 years experience working in IT, including a couple of times as an IT manager. I’ve spent time managing databases, developing software with the aim of improving the company from a technical perspective. I’ve even taught computing from school to degree level. But never hired, worked as or worked with a Data Scientist.

This leads on to my next question…

Is it because we don’t have the skill set (as a population)?

So my experience of education has made me question, what the hell are we teaching? Lets look at Level 3 provision in Hull. We have three colleges and now every academy has a 6th form but no-one is teaching skills to become a data scientist. As a city, everything computing seems to be focused on making games, often quoting how much the game industry is worth.

Whats your point?

Advertising you teach Game Making is great, but it’s a little like advertising a course in Premiership Football Skills. You get a lot of hype among young people, you get a lot of applications for your course but very few actually end up playing for a premiership team. So the next argument is, “but we teaching people how to make their own games, you know all entrepreneurial and that!”. Good and I fully agree with that, but who is that good for? The chap who sets up the games company and a few of his/her mates? Look at Mojang, sold Minecraft for $2 billion, employs 50 people, Notch takes his $2 billion and buggers of to LA. So is games good for the individual or the local economy?

Lets compare that with the potential of a Data Scientist in Hull. Firstly as shown in the illustration somewhere on this page, a data scientist is multi-disciplinary. You need the data analyst skills, the computer science skills and business/context awareness. Your job, go into a business and make a real change. Look at the data, investigate why things are happening, questioning all the time, looking for statistical relevance. Going a step further with predictive modelling, ‘if we change this, what will happen?’, even further with machine learning. Moving away from just storing data to actually using it. So whats good for the economy? Well for a start companies will be able to understand their businesses in more depth, make them more efficient and possibly reduce costs. Companies in the local area will start catching up with the higher tech companies who are already employing data scientists.

My Simple Example (hopefully you’ll get it)

It felt like I ended up ranting, so I’ll finish with a little example I learnt from a school. In this school the teachers fill in a spreadsheet of pupils performance, they pass the spreadsheet to the deputy headteacher who transfers the data to a computer program. The computer system outputs the pupils target for that year, in other words what level they should be at. A couple of points….

  • None of the staff know how it works, it just works
  • The targets are fairly accurate with the pupils
  • The school can now track student progress more accurately
  • Intervention can be planned
  • Pupil performance is raised
  • To develop it a data scientist:
    • researched the domain
    • managed/manipulated the data
    • developed a statistically significant model
    • coded the software
    • tested it
    • supported the solution

Such a simple example but no-one is teaching the skills to be able to do this, whilst others are not seeing the need.

As promised a picture