The Science of Data Scientists

The concept of the Data Scientist may very well be the next big thing in the field of analytics. Recently several industry leaders have weighed in on the question “What is a Data Scientist?”, but another way of looking at this is to ask the question “What is the Science of Data Scientists?”
            Data Scientist

A dictionary definition of science is a “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation”. So let’s look at the use of science in three areas that Data Scientists all need to do in carrying out their basic work:

  1. They transform the data into a format and structure that is conducive to analysis
  2. They carry out some kind of descriptive, interpretative, or predictive analysis
  3. They communicate their results

Using Science in Data Transformation:

Anyone who’s worked with data for a while knows that the data you have available is usually less than perfect. Missing data, inconsistently formatted data, and duplicate data are fairly routine obstacles, and then linking data from different sources is even more challenging. Data Scientists are also often required to work with “secondary data” that has been generated through an operational system or process. The data was originally designed to meet a functional requirement, rather than with the intention of it being analysed in the future. Even if the data is clean and error-free, there is a requirement to reorganize the data into a structure that is conducive to the analysis that needs to be performed.

So, in response, most Data Scientists develop skills in transforming data, and are quite good at it too. They use tools ranging from statistical analysis software to standard database technologies. Where the science comes in, is that there if often a lot of experimentation that takes place along the way, as the Data Scientist figures out how best transform the data while introducing little to no error along the way.

Many Data Scientists have learned the hard way that using a scientific method to prove that the data transformation has been done correctly ultimately saves time and reduces rework in the end.

            
Big Number

Using Science in Performing Analysis:

Here the use of scientific method is more obvious. It is taken as a given that Data Scientists conduct their analysis and modeling systematically, and that the essence of the work involves observation and experimentation. In carrying out the work, often “the proving” is a key component of what the Data Scientist does, so that they know they are drawing the right conclusions.

However, there is a wide range of scientific tools that Data Scientists can use to understand and interpret massive amounts of complex data. Data Scientists are not unlike other skilled experts, and can be sometimes be like a carpenter with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. For example, some Data Scientists are truly exceptional when it comes to logistical regression modeling (making the best guess of a “yes/no” variable), but then are complete novices when it comes to multivariate analysis (such as condensing information captured in 1,000 correlated variables into 10 summary variables). As is often the case with niche skills, it takes a while to really get good at using them effectively, and it’s rare to find Data Scientists that are truly effective in all domains. The scientific connection here is that Data Scientists sometimes have to come to grips with the limits of their own skill set, and have to experiment in new directions to expand their knowledge base.

Using Science in Communicating Results:

This angle is less intuitive, but ultimately what’s the point of doing high-brow analysis, if nobody is able to understand the result, or even worse, if they can’t use the result to support a key decision?

Data Scientists that are in high demand are those that are able to truly understand the business question being asked, and why it’s being asked. Then they communicate their complex findings in a way that the decision-makers can actually do something with the result.

This important skill takes a while to develop, often through experimentation (i.e. what happens when I present it this way?), and then observation (i.e. what did the CFO do with the last findings I sent her?). Even better, is when the Data Scientist adopts basic market research approaches to their own work. Specifically, by following up with their clients and/or end-users of their work and discovering how the results could be even more useful. Or taking a more traditional approach, they can literally post their results with on-line reporting tools and run analytics to see how often and how deeply their results are being viewed.

The concept of the Data Scientist is still relatively new and will be shaped by those of us who work in and around in the industry. Please offer your own comments and feedback, even if you disagree with any of these ideas.

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