NORMAN – Big data – two small words that will have a major impact on how companies make key decisions about everything from improving productivity to predicting consumer behavior and, in some cases, the future strategy of the company. But the copious numbers only tell part of the picture – how the organization interprets and applies the data determines its business impact.
The University of Oklahoma College of Engineering is helping shape the application of big data in its new interdisciplinary master’s degree of engineering with a concentration in data science and analytics. While many companies take advantage of big data to monitor and track everything from retail purchasing to product performance, being able to predict future operations and behaviors is the key that will revolutionize the way companies compete, produce and innovate. The new program’s curriculum teaches algorithm development from a systems perspective. OU graduates will have the skills to design and build tools to extract, assimilate and analyze data, and the systems understanding to predict and enhance future performance for enterprises across all domains of the private and public sectors. A collaboration between the Schools of Computer Science and Industrial and Systems Engineering, the first cohort of students started their graduate work this fall.
“The insight big data can provide is far-reaching. The opportunities to use the information to predict and improve performance of all types of systems, across all types of enterprises, are wide open,” said Randa Shehab, director of the OU School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
Many reports, including one published by McKinsey Global Institute, have identified the urgent need to address the current shortage of data scientists in the United States which is expected to exceed the number of current graduates by as many as 200,000 hires over the next decade. The White House has launched the “Big Data Research and Development Initiative,” which includes expanding the workforce to support the needs of the big data community as one of its primary objectives. The MSDSA at OU plays a major role in accomplishing these objectives by helping to prepare a future workforce that can design, analyze and apply big data solutions.
“As computing power has grown, so has the vision for how this power is harnessed for research, innovation and economic growth,” said Charles Jones, OU College of Engineering Advisory Board member and retired consultant for McKinsey & Co., a global management consultant company. “But the volume, velocity and variety of big data require big investments from industry and education to really capture its true potential.”
Over the past 20 years, big data science has evolved from merely creating descriptions of what happened from 500 gigabytes of internal data to forecasting what is likely to happen based on petabytes of data captured from multiple sources.
“In the 1990s, companies’ were limited to making strategic decisions based on descriptive, retrospective data analysis and gut feelings,” Jones said. “Fast forward 25 years and several monumental technological advancements, and progressive companies are building strategies around data that not only forecasts what’s likely to happen, but also describes why it will happen.”
While most companies recognize the importance of big data, many are overwhelmed by the challenge of integrating, analyzing and finding value in the volume, variety and velocity of the data sources available to them. Companies can easily access massive data from a variety of sources, including home appliances, credit cards and social media posts. But just because a company has this data, doesn’t mean that they can turn raw numbers into actionable insights.”
“The data deluge presents both an opportunity and a challenge to most companies,” said David Franke, OU College of Engineering Advisory Board member and chief scientist at Vast, provider of marketplaces and big data insights for consumers’ big purchases. “The opportunity lies in a company’s ability to easily collect, store and test data sets and use that information to enhance business performance measures like supply chain management and customer satisfaction. The challenge lies in the lack of people who possess the skill set to create value from raw data.”
Big data by itself tell more about what has happened than why it has happened. “Determining the why is where data science becomes an art form,” Franke said. “Not only must data scientists’ possess technical skills in computer programming and statistical analysis to test the data, but they also need analytical skills and contextual knowledge to extract and isolate the meaningful interconnections in the data and transform it into actionable intelligence.”
“Companies don’t need people to just tell them what’s happened, they need people to help them predict what’s going to happen and provide options to capitalize on these predictions,” said Jones. “Big data needs big intelligence, and OU College of Engineering’s MSDSA program is bridging the gap between real-world problems, abstract data and effective solutions. The program is designed to teach students how to define the problem and then find solutions in the data.”
The MSDSA coursework will be driven by case studies, and students in the program will complete an industry internship or a research practicum. Students will work closely with an industry or government partner to solve real-world scientific or business problems in preparation for their career.
“With the advent of the Internet and big data, we had a revolution of tools to gather data,” said Franke. “With the MSDSA program, we are leading a new revolution of tools to do something with that data – to glean meaningful information from the vastness of big data so we can make better large-scale, long-term decisions.”
“I wish I were 25 again, so I could go back to college and get a master’s in data science and analytics, then the fun would really begin” chuckled Jones.
Big Data Helps Big Energy Find Big Solutions
The energy industry has been leveraging big data for decades to determine where natural resources reside and how to bring them to the surface. But despite advancements in tools, technologies and data storage, many oil and gas companies struggle to translate data into tangible business value.
“Energy companies have trouble extracting and finding meaning from the vast amounts of data points on the path from construction to production to delivery,” said Charles Nicholson, OU College of Engineering assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering. “This problem is as much of an infrastructure issue as it is a human resources issue. There simply aren’t enough people who have computer, mathematical and industry specific knowledge to harness the power of big data. ”
The College of Engineering is partnering with Oklahoma energy companies to help capitalize on big data in a big way. Through strategic partnerships with companies like Devon Energy, MSDSA students will work directly with professional teams to transform disparate data points into valuable assets that improve decision making, operational efficiency and customer service.
“Partnerships with companies like Devon Energy address the skills gap issue that emerges between the classroom and the corporate office,” said Nicholson. “The MSDSA program’s research and internship opportunities allow our students to contribute to solutions for everything from estimating costs and timelines for projects to optimizing field exploration, equipment maintenance and delivery.”
“It’s easy to forget that data in and of itself has no tangible value until a human being finds and assigns it value,” Nicholson said. “Our program is focused on developing a well-rounded data scientist who can combine technology, process and human intuition to solve complex problems.”