Whether or not we are regularly mindful of it, we live in a world where the depth and influence of digital data are breathtaking. Nearly every day – sometimes every hour, it seems – some astonishing new achievement (or disgrace) makes the news, thanks to creative, artful manipulation of data. Planets and bosons are discovered. Diseases are eradicated. Fortunes, elections and even wars are won and lost. Our phones know where we are. Google and Facebook know whether to show us ads for yoga mats, Dublin hotels or Call of Duty Black Ops 3. It’s all thanks to our nascent sharing, gathering, warehousing and manipulation of vast amounts of digital data.
Of course, businesses, governments and other organizations have long used numbers to make decisions, set prices, find customers and build better products, said Zain Khandwala, the founding executive director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics at Bellarmine University.
“There have been a number of fields and sub-disciplines around the better use of data to help businesses do those things,” he said. “Operations research, marketing research, managerial science, actuarial science – these are all inherently quantitative disciplines that served business well for a number of decades.”
But what ended up happening was the “datafication” of the world, said Mr. Khandwala. “More automated processes, enhanced technologies, our increasing capacity to store data and the development of the web” led to a data revolution. “As a result, organizations are looking at their data assets, their data warehouses, and trying to better understand how to leverage it – to answer some of the questions we felt were unanswerable in the past,” he said.
This new way of thinking about data isn’t just about volume, storage or retrieval; it’s also about timeliness and what Mr. Khandwala calls holistic thinking. “In the past, you might meet to make decisions based on a report from a month ago. Now data is at your fingertips, it’s being produced and collated in real time and accessible – if only we have the wherewithal and talent to leverage it,” he said.
To help prepare a new generation of data decision-makers, the Institute is launching a Master of Science in Analytics (MSA) degree this fall. Future plans include cross-disciplinary analytics coursework, certification programs, corporate training, and research and consulting services. Mr. Khandwala will hire faculty and staff, but the Institute will also benefit from the wealth of faculty talent in other disciplines at Bellarmine.
The MSA program is an intensive 10-month, full-time, STEM master’s degree, focusing on business and organizations (as opposed to scientific and engineering data analysis). The program is modeled on a pioneering degree at North Carolina State University, where Mr. Khandwala earned his MSA. (He also holds an MBA in management science and marketing from the University of Toronto and a BS in computer science from the University of British Columbia.)
A native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, he attended high school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Before coming to Bellarmine, he was a researcher and lecturer for various education programs and, most recently, an analytics recruiter for J.P. Morgan Chase.
He hopes to enroll 20 students for the first-year program at Bellarmine and escalate to 40 students within three years. Students will come from Louisville, of course, but he will also recruit regionally and nationally and establish industry partnerships.
Indications are that there is a huge demand. Conjecturally, almost any organization can make better use of digital data. “Banks, insurance companies and telcos [telecommunications companies] were quickest to datafy their world,” said Mr. Khandwala. Louisville’s major corporations have substantial and exponentially growing data challenges and opportunities.
But small organizations, governments and nonprofits can also make use of better analytics. “The Gartner Report says that by 2018 there will be a shortage of 200,000 to 400,000 analytics professionals or data-savvy professionals across the country,” he said. So it’s not just big business that stands to gain. “A lot of charitable organizations with limited resources use analytics to figure out who they’re likely to get the fastest and best response from,” he said.
And analytics, much like the PC, Internet and smartphone revolutions that preceded and helped spawn it, even comes with its own rock stars. “President Obama’s re-election campaign was a celebrated use of analytics – the data scientists who worked on that campaign were very savvy people. They are celebrities in our community now,” said Mr. Khandwala.
So, who are these future data rock stars? “A lot of our candidates will come straight out of undergrad,” said Mr. Khandwala. “People with quantitative aptitude, quantitative training and business understanding. There will also be a lot of career changers – people who recognize that this is the hot new space. There are organizations clamoring for the position and paying very well for it. And a lot are people who are already doing data work – business intelligence, producing reports, telling stories with data – but who want to elevate their skill sets.”
One way Bellarmine will do that is by teaching what Mr. Khandwala calls the “art and culture” of analytics. “You could approach data science or analytics in a purely scientific way,” he said. “You could say, ‘Here’s how you run certain models; here’s how you extract data; here’s how you write the SQL code; here’s how you get outputs.’ That’s the science behind analytics.
“To me, the art behind analytics is equally important. It is working with the business partners and the other stakeholders in an organization. It’s helping them understand what the organizational needs are, what the challenges are, what business problems they face and working with them to figure out what the priorities should be. How can we better manage our data assets? Which of these problems are most solvable using the data?
“That’s the art of analytics. The culture of analytics is an organizational thing. How do we become more data inquisitive? How do we get to a place where all of our conversations can be data-driven? How do we go from thinking deterministically to probabilistically? How do you create a culture where an organization is continually learning about itself from data?”
One way students will think deeply about the art and culture of analytics is through intensive, eight-week internships at local organizations. This is a part of the program that benefits the students, benefits the businesses or organizations, and is a foundational concept behind creating an institute and not simply a new master’s degree. “I have no doubt that we can create experiences that are valuable for the student – working with real data in a real-world situation – but also create substantive value for the organizations,” said Mr. Khandwala.
“One advantage we have as an institute is to help advance the use of analytics within our organization itself. After the internship, we can bring the students back in to work for a couple of months on a capstone project that is in service to the university.”
Another discipline in keeping with Bellarmine’s values is the incorporation of ethics into the program. There are infamous examples of ethical lapses in the era of digital data, from derivatives shenanigans to high-frequency trading, to government spying, to creepy examples like a famous 2012 incident involving Target. The retailer got in hot water by using its data to correctly identify a high school girl as being pregnant – and sending her coupons for maternity clothes and baby products – before she had even told her family.
“There are hard questions, not just about security and privacy – those are germane and beginning to be well understood – but there are questions that go beyond that: What does it mean to target ethically? How do you incorporate social justice? How do you differentiate without prejudicing? Ethics will be a component of what we’re calling ‘analytical leadership,’ ” he said.
“There are three foundational courses of the program: Analytical Leadership, the Analytical Organization and Foundations to Analytical Thought. This is where we involve the liberal arts – how do you think analytically, how do you think creatively, what is the right application of logic and the quantitative sciences – to arrive at what we might loosely call truths.”
If that all sounds like a complex turn around the dance floor, consider Mr. Khandwala’s hobby: He’s a Latin dancer. Once a competitive dancer and a teacher of salsa and merengue dancing, he now dances socially. “I’ve found that Louisville has a great community for it. Thursday nights at Sky Bar above Saints in St. Matthews – it’s the big night for dancing here!” he said. “I’m also going to be the faculty sponsor for a Latin-dance club here on campus. That’s a big passion of mine.”
Jim Welp | firstname.lastname@example.org