Data Scientists and the Practice of Data Science

I was recently involved in a couple of panel discussions on what it means to be a data scientist and to practice data science. These discussions/debates took place at IBM Insight in Las Vegas in Late October. I attended the event as IBM’s guest. The panels, moderated by Brian Fanzo, included me and these data experts:

I enjoyed our discussions and their take on the topic of data science. Our discussion was opened by the question “What is the role of a data scientist in the insight economy?” You can read each of our answers to this question on IBM’s Big Data Hub. While we come from different backgrounds, there was a common theme across our answers. We all think that data science is about finding insights in data to help make better decisions. I offered a more complete answer to that question in a prior post. Today, I want to share some more thoughts about other areas of the field of data science that we talked about in our discussions. The content below reflects my opinion.

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As more data professionals are now calling themselves data scientists, it’s important to clarify exactly what a data scientist is. One way to understand data scientists is to understand what kind of skills they bring to bear on analytics projects. It’s generally agreed that a successful data scientist is one who possesses skills across three areas: subject matter expertise in a particular field, programming/technology and statistics/math (see DJ Patil and Hilary Mason’s take, Drew Conway’s Data Science Venn Diagram (see Figure 1) and a review of many experts’ opinion on this topic.

AnalyticsWeek and I recently took an empirical approach to understanding the skills of data scientists by asking over 500 data professionals about their job roles and their proficiency across 25 data skills in five areas (i.e., business, technology, programming, math/modeling and statistics). A factor analysis of their proficiency ratings revealed three factors: business acumen, technology/programming skills and statistics/math knowledge.

A data scientist who possesses expertise in all data skills is rare. In our survey, none of the respondents were experts in all five skill areas. Instead, our results identified four different types of data scientists, each with varying levels of proficiency in data skills; as expected, different data professionals possessed role-specific skills (see Figure 2). Business Management professionals were the most proficient in business skills. Developers were the most proficient in technology and programming skills. Researchers were most proficient in math/modeling and statistics. Creatives did not possess great proficiency in any one skill.

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Gil Press offers a great summary of the field of data science. He traces the literary history of the term (term first appears in use in 1974) and settles on the idea that data science is a way of extracting insights from data using the powers of computer science and statistics applied to data from a specific field of study.

Another approach is the 6-step CRISP-DM (Cross Industry Standard Process for Data Mining) method (see Figure 3).

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