On Data Scientists in Dublin

A Google Data Center in North Carolina

The sexiest job of the 21st century, according to Harvard Business Review; Data Scientists are hot and corporations cannot keep their hands off them. Taming Himalayan mountains of records and slicing through Amazonian jungles of numbers and text to then unearth hidden patterns in the darkest recesses of statistical tables are all in a day’s work for the new Indiana Jones of the modern business world. How exciting therefore to mix with over one hundred of them at the Big Data Summit hosted by Innovation Enterprise appropriately enough in Dublin where companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook  have based their European headquarters.

No evidence of bullwhips, fedoras or leather jackets sadly but my new friends were clearly driven by a pioneer spirit and passion for the quest. Take Ian from the Cylon Group who fits high-end monitoring equipment in buildings and by studying the data feeds tells companies like M&S where they can save fortunes on energy costs. Then there is Robert at Livebookings poring over the dining history of millions of customers to attract the best guests at the right time to restaurants via his on-line reservation system. Also Andy the sports scientist at Leicester Tigers strapping sensors on to his rugby players to predict injuries, evaluate tactics and improve the team’s performance. These are just a few of the many new-age explorers attracted to Dublin.

A US firm Gartner offered the original vision of Big Data characterised by “three Vs”: high volume, velocity and variety. Clearly the delegates at the summit loved a big definition as much as big data. A fourth V (virtual) was added in the morning session and during lunch “ten Vs” were discussed. By the evening drinks we were on to “thrirty-two Vs”; although I am sure one of them was vodka. The point is that we have created vast amounts of data and this has a hidden value; the “new oil” . Better still, advanced predictive analytical techniques allow us to sift through all of this stuff to find relationships and correlations to model future trends and patterns. In other words, as one speaker put it, we can now ask the questions we never thought we could ask before.

One downside is that the data amount we are capturing is getting out of hand. Up until 2003 we had generated five billion gigabytes of data but by next year we will generate that much every ten minutes! The only option for firms is to store data at dedicated remote servers in the “cloud”, accessing it via the internet. Yet as the New York Times recently reported, the world’s digital warehouses use about thirty billion watts of electricity, roughly equivalent to the output of thirty nuclear power plants so the impact on the environment is not insignificant. Added to that is the worrying concentration of risk, as the global economy becomes dependent on a smaller number of data centres.

It would take a lot more than that to deter the Dublin crowd but they seemed less assured on the human side. Incredibly scarce, intrepid but individualistic, fitting uneasily into traditional organisational structures, these guys can be difficult to manage, retain and recruit. Whereas Indiana Jones could throw off the tweed suit and leap seamlessly from academia to the temple of doom, we heard that universities are not preparing students for the transition into the real world of predictive analytics where much of the drudge is building statistical tables and less about interrogating them.

Even though their day job might not be as sexy as Harvard would have you believe, the Data Analysts are already stimulating businesses into radically new ways of thinking about their customers, processes, products and services. What is more, we are only just at the beginning of this journey that might have wide-ranging consequences for the way industries function. Now that is pretty racy.

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