woman with dark hair looking at papers in front of a tablet with graphs and pie charts.
Image: © golubovy/Stock.adobe.com

‘With a basic degree, you can learn data science on the job’

2 Nov 2018

We need skills and leadership to make the most of data, according to Jennifer Cruise from the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Data. The word might fill you with glee at the prospect of being able to gather and analyse it to make your work and world a better place, or it might challenge you because you don’t know where to start or what to do with it.

Whatever your reaction, data has been one of the hottest topics for business in recent years and, as we move towards new ways of joining up datasets to see bigger pictures and trends, enterprises need to ensure they have the right people and strategies to make the most of it.

Future Human

Those are some of the trends that Jennifer Cruise sees in her position as head of data science at the Aon Centre for Innovation and Analytics (ACIA). The centre uses data to help develop new products and services for insurance carriers and clients. It deals mainly with commercial and more specialist risk, she explained, which might range from satellites in space, to food recall risks, to managing ships around the world.

Joined-up thinking on data

Next week at the National Analytics Conference, Cruise will be on a panel where she expects to discuss several aspects and challenges that businesses face relating to data, including how to deal with the abundance of information that is now available and, of course, the key issues of skills and resources.

“You can only truly exploit the data if you get the right people in that space, and there’s a double whammy,” she said. “On the one hand, you have a lack of hands-on resources. Skilled data scientists are hard to come by and things are changing quickly, so people who are qualified need to stay on top of things. Then, you also have a gap in the leadership space – the people who can advise you how to turn [data] into revenue for your company, or how to use your data to become more operationally efficient.”

Fear can also be a serious challenge for companies. “Everybody is moving into investing in data, if they are not already there,” said Cruise. “But there is a huge fear – GDPR is one – in terms of what can I do with this data, am I allowed to use it? You have that legislative fear, and you also have a fear of the unknown. How do you quantify this intangible asset you have called data and how do you make it work for you? These are real problems that companies are grappling with.”

young woman with long dark hair smiling at the camera. Black and white photo.

Image: Jennifer Cruise/LinkedIn

Yet it is an incredibly exciting time in data science and analytics, with more and more data becoming available through digitisation and new ways of working with it, noted Cruise, including joining datasets that would have traditionally been ‘unjoinable’. “Joining up data will dominate over the next few years,” she said. “Fuzzy matching has been around for a while – looking at ways of clashing two datasets together – and there is a lot more happening in that space. That will become more important, to clash data together and join it in a probabilistic fashion.”

The resulting joined-up datasets will provide the power for new insights and discoveries, and Cruise is excited about the prospect. “When we have the ability to connect disparate pieces of information and disparate datasets in a machine-ready way, then we can see the whole data,” she said. “I think we are incredibly lucky to be here at this time.”

‘The term “data science” didn’t exist when I was starting out’

Strong foundations

Cruise’s career has been firmly rooted in her initial studies of maths, and she sees maths and science as a good foundation for the area. “I started out thinking I was going to be an academic. I loved maths and I Ioved all the arts subjects as well,” she said of her time as an undergraduate in NUI Galway, where she studied maths and physics alongside English and philosophy, going on to do a master’s degree in mathematics.

In 2008, Cruise started working in industry and, looking back, she sees her maths background as a strong basis for her work in data science. “The term ‘data science’ didn’t exist when I was starting out,” she recalled. “But maths and the science degrees can give you a good foundation in the problem-solving skills you need to tackle data.”

She would like to see greater awareness of the exciting opportunities available in data science, and she encourages students who are thinking about their career options to review what is available to study (degree options are growing in Ireland) and talk to people working in the area.

Cruise sees maths, physics and computer science as good routes in, because they offer strong skills and foundation in times of change. “I have grown three teams of data scientists in different companies and I don’t think anyone had undergraduate degree in data science,” she said. “They were actuaries, or they had studied maths or physics or engineering.

“Technology is changing so much, it is moving so fast [that] if you have a basic foundation degree, you can learn on the job.”

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Claire O’Connell
By Claire O’Connell

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology from University College Dublin and a master’s in science communication from Dublin City University. She has written for Silicon Republic and The Irish Times and was named Irish Science Writer of the Year in 2016.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading