Ireland has the edge when it comes to capturing a slice of the most significant transition in business history: the data-driven economy.

Analyse this: Ireland is on the edge of a data science tsunami

31 Aug 2015

Crunch the numbers and you can already see that Ireland has the edge when it comes to capturing a slice of the most significant transition in business and technology history: the onset of the data-driven economy.

On a bright and sunny morning in April, Dublin awoke to the news that a European online fashion retailer called Zalando was locating in Dublin. The news meant a jobs bonanza of 200 new positions. However, these positions weren’t for designers or models, they were for data scientists and STEM graduates who could work in R&D.

“Understanding our customers, and gaining deep insights into their purchasing patterns and their behaviour online means we can provide them with a personalised and compelling offering,” said Robert Gentz, co-founder of Zalando.

In that one sentence Gentz summed up the biggest opportunity of the 21st century: understanding your data.

If you said to anyone 20 years ago that we’d all be walking around with powerful computers in our pockets, people would have looked twice at you. But now, smartphone-toting buyers are just in the vanguard of a whole world of sensors providing signals and insights for companies to better serve customers and basically sell more stuff.

All of these signals and all of these sensors combined with always-on internet activity means that businesses will need to find ways of filtering this data to find the needle in the haystack for opportunity or to make split-second business decisions.

Already there exists a community of employers in Ireland for whom data is their life’s blood, including: AOL; Aon; Tableau Software; Twitter; Pramerica; Fidelity; Bank of America Merrill Lynch; Quantcast, TripAdvisor and Paddy Power, to name a few.

I got my first insight into this field when it was a technology niche simply known as “business intelligence” and how casinos in Las Vegas even 10 years ago would gather and analyse data so effectively that no opportunity was lost in ensuring the average once-a-year visitor to the casino and its outlying shops, bars and restaurants would spend as much as they had on the premises.

This data-driven thinking is being extended to every facet of life, including sports, where Sligo company Orreco, for example, has developed technologies that allow athletes and sports clubs across the world gain insights and ensure peak performance.

When it comes to data science and data analytics, Ireland is already reaping the whirlwind of job opportunities as Zalando has shown.

Other companies such as Aon have selected Dublin to host the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA), for example. Accenture last year deployed a 40-strong analytics division in Dublin to develop future technologies and models for a variety of industries.

‘The data scientist is going to be one of the hottest jobs of the 21st century – it’s already an area in hot demand – but the teachers themselves weren’t aware of that’

In March, it emerged that LexisNexis Risk Solutions is bringing in 70 jobs over the next three years for its Dublin-based centre of excellence for data analytics.

As part of its efforts to capture a share of the US$1bn a year business intelligence market in Europe, Tableau Software is aggressively investing in its operations in Dublin. It already employs more than 33 people and has moved into new offices in Ballsbridge that can accommodate up to 100 people.

Opportunities in data analytics aren’t purely the preserve of the multinationals. A new €446,000 collaboration between major Irish dairy producers Glanbia and Dairygold and Irish researchers will see data analytics and big data employed to help boost milk production. The collaboration involves researchers from Waterford Institute of Technology’s TSSG, Cork Institute of Technology and Teagasc collaborating with the dairy producers on the ‘Smart Appi’ Project.

To work in the area of data analytics, good instincts in the areas of maths, data modelling and statistics are crucial. Jobs in the area include analysts for many parts of the industry –management, infrastructure, customer and QA. Salaries in big data and analytics vary from €40,000 a year for a junior business analyst, right to €65,000 for data governance managers, €85,000 for data warehouse architects and €100,000+ for heads of data governance.

Data science is the new storytelling

However, for Ireland to become a leading country for data analytics, career choices in this area are critical as there is a global shortage of skilled professionals.

A report last year, Assessing The Demand For Big Data And Analytics Skills, by Forfás and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN), identified measures to build the big data and analytics talent pool in Ireland over the period up to 2020 in line with enterprise demand.

It estimated that Ireland could create between 12,750 and 21,000 jobs in data analytics if it maintains its focus on creating skills in maths, statistics and management science.

The 21,000 potential job vacancies for skilled professionals could arise under the report’s high-growth scenario, from both expansion and replacement demand in the period up to 2020 – comprising 3,630 for deep analytical roles and 17,470 for big data-savvy roles. There is also potential for a further identified 8,780 job openings for supporting technology staff.

The big question is, however, are we preparing our students for opportunities in this area, particularly in terms of maths skills.

“The data scientist is going to be one of the hottest jobs of the 21stcentury – it’s already an area in hot demand – but the teachers themselves weren’t aware of that,” Accenture’s head of analytics in Ireland Edel Lynch told in an interview last year.

In an effort to reverse this anomaly, Accenture joined forces with the Irish Maths Association to encourage secondary students to use maths and statistics as tools to rationally solve challenges in real-world situations.

This is a vital concept because, as Zalando has shown, every business at some stage in the future will have to become a data-driven business.

In the working world the changes are already underway as workers move beyond office productivity tools like Word, PowerPoint and Outlook to use data visualisation tools like Tableau to provide the narrative for telling a story and providing insights into business trends.

Tableau Software is making a large investment in Europe, with recent growth driven by international expansion in 2014. The company has seen revenue growth of more than 100pc for the past two years in EMEA, and has grown its customers by 60pc since 2013, reaching more than 5,000 customers in EMEA in 2014 and more than doubling its employee headcount.

In an interview with recently, Tableau’s CEO Christian Chabot said he sees Tableau as leading the charge for a new generation of software companies that will define the working world as we know it much the same way as Office from Microsoft has done in the past 20 or more years.

Chabot cited research from the University of Notre Dame on what employers were looking for today.

“They found that the most likely skills that employers were looking for were in the world of data analysis in addition to other common things you are supposed to know about like the social graph, social networking web and internet publishing. Data is coming into that realm now and it is something that we would like to help with.”

He said that because of the availability of talent and skills his ambition is to see Tableau become one of the larger tech employers in Ireland.

Currently the largest tech employer in Ireland is Google, which employs up to 5,000 people (2,500 direct and 2,500 indirectly) and, speaking with, the head of Google in Ireland Ronan Harris said that analytics is at the heart of everything Google does.

For Ireland to catch this wave and ensure the best opportunities for students, a reassessment of how maths, for example, is taught, needs to be examined whereby the use of analytics can be applied to real-world scenarios. Not only that, but software languages like Ruby and Python need to be better understood and Ireland could take a leaf from the UK’s strategy of making coding a compulsory subject at school.

No more dawdling or learning by rote, data is the language of now and we need graduates who can crunch the numbers, capture insights and signals and be the storytellers of the future.

Data Science Week, with special coverage of this rapidly-growing field, will take place on from 28 September to 2 October 2015. Get updates by subscribing to our news alerts or following @siliconrepublic and the hashtag #DataScienceWeek on Twitter.

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Cliffs of Moher image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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