Transformation is achieved through numbers, and nowhere is that understanding more important than in the exploding field of data science.
Data is to this century what fossil fuel was to the last: an accelerator of growth, disruption and change. Today’s world bristles with connected sensors in everything from wristwatches to wind turbines, which collect and transmit steady streams of data. The insights and knowledge pulled from those rapid, real-time flows of structured and unstructured data—which includes words, numbers, videos and photos—are creating new infrastructures, new businesses, new industries and new job descriptions. “Increasingly, you’ll see the merging of data science into the very patterns of our codes, creating new ways of solving really hard problems,” says Bob Lord, chief digital officer of IBM.
As more businesses look to extract value from data-driven technologies like artificial intelligence, the need for talented workers who can interpret the data is expected to rise across all industries. In fact, IBM predicts that the demand for data scientists will soar 28 percent by 2020. The responsibilities of those data scientists are shifting as well—becoming akin to the civil engineers of the 1940s and 1950s who designed bridges and roads—to create our nation’s latest form of infrastructure.
Technology will continue to accelerate transformation as cloud-based solutions allow easier and more secure access to big data sets, which in turn arm companies with the information they need to bring relevant products to market. As all of these changes come online, those who understand the underlying algorithms can have a huge effect on business and society. Here are some examples of those who are already making a difference.
Creating Customized Care
Our bodies are a complex biological roadmap, as unique as our fingerprints. “Our current one-size-fits-all healthcare mentality is often one-size-fits-none,” says Daniel Kraft, a physician and scientist who explores developing technologies in biomedicine and healthcare as chair of Exponential Medicine at Singularity University. “Right now, our healthcare is primarily based on intermittent data—the doctor checking your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the office during a visit—and it’s very reactive. The move is to look at larger data sets to pick up disease early, then provide personalized care and therapy that maps to exactly what you need.”
Precision healthcare actually tailors treatments to a patient’s unique genetic code and can turn that data into meaningful actions. This data—gathered by connected devices ranging from blood pressure monitors and scales to smart watches and thermometers—will form the basis for personalized and proactive wellness plans that can even include recommended vitamins and exercise. Data scientists will store it on a cloud-based platform, where doctors can also upload the latest related information, such as lab results, to create a more complete health profile. This lays the groundwork for a revolutionary opportunity in personalized treatments—bespoke medicine, if you will—that will drive the next wave of medical breakthroughs.
Improving Urban Logistics
Every city relies on a complex web of data-driven systems and services to survive. And yet, myriad problems still plague the most advanced cities, including bad road quality. The data scientists in Kansas City, MO, however, are doing something about it. Their latest gambit: the development of “pothole prediction” technology.
Bob Bennett, the city’s chief innovation officer, says his teams have worked with Chicago-based Xaqt to create a system that uses various data streams to dynamically plan city operations. Predictor variables include the number of freeze-and-thaw cycles, traffic counts, bus routes and pavement conditions.
The hope is that work crews can focus on more preventative maintenance—stopping a pothole before it starts—rather than a full-scale street repair after a pothole has occurred. In other words, now, with the help of data scientists, your ride across town might be a lot less bumpy.
Up-Leveling Public Health
Data can be just as valuable as cash or equipment in slowing the spread of some of the world’s most vexing problems. When halting the spread of infectious disease, for example, the rapid scraping and analysis of digital data is literally a life-saving tool. Governments, companies, NGOs and specialists need to obtain good data quickly to know where the outbreaks are, how to target them and if the solutions are working.
Nations work side by side with telecom companies worldwide, linking mobile networks with health services to create a powerful disease detection system. In Pakistan, for instance, health officials partnering with data scientists predicted local Dengue fever outbreaks weeks earlier using smartphone data than they previously would have through traditional means. The network used anonymized electronic surveys to create accurate predictive models that allowed for epidemic preparedness and containment of the virus.
Data scientists at the University of Maryland have begun to use predictive analytics to analyze student behavior, searching for undergraduates who are at risk of dropping out. University system officials say the practice—which may review anything from grades and financial aid information to how often students swipe their ID cards at the library or the dining hall—could help educators assist struggling undergrads. It could also help them identify roadblocks, such as a single difficult class or a combination of pressures that hit at the same time, that lead students to drop out.
The enormous value of data science is becoming clearer every day and so are the opportunities to directly impact people, companies and society. For those who love solving problems or transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary, data science is for you.