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ASU populating the world of 'data science cowboys'

Michael Goul

Michael Goul talks with a supporter after a reception for the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at the W. P. Carey School of Business on Sept. 10. Goul, associate dean for research at the school, says the kind of insight involved in business analytics demands creativity, making analysts much more than number crunchers.
Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News

September 11, 2015

In the 10-minute span that a student buys a cup of coffee, tweets a photo of her lunch and then logs onto her online course, she generates data.

Multiply that by millions of users every day, and companies like Twitter can harvest 10 terabytes of data — enough to hold the contents of the entire Library of Congress.

Businesses are eager to mine that data to maximize efficiency, customer satisfaction and profit. Which means they also need business analysts to swim through the oceans of information.

It’s one reason why the Harvard Business Review said that business analyst is the "sexiest job of the 21st century." The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the field will have a 22 percent increase in positions by 2020.

Arizona State University is feeding that boom. The program in the W. P. Carey School of Business has seen enrollment in its master’s of business analytics degree program triple in the three years it has been offered — from 54 in 2013 to 154 this year.

ASU added an undergraduate program in analytics in 2014 and an online master’s degree program this year.

The degrees provide corporations like Google and Netflix people who can create algorithms that smash the numbers and reveal the nuances of consumer behavior. The results can illustrate things like how to find the best match to an online search or recommend the best movies for specific customers to watch.

Companies like Google and Netflix provide some popular examples, but all businesses will need to excavate the information generated by their websites, social media, credit-card transactions — even security cameras — just to keep up with the competition.

“Looking at the data can give a company an insight into how their strategy might have shifted and how the reality is different from the folklore that the people who started the organization based it on,” said Michael Goul, associate dean of research at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

ASU’s analytics degree program was driven by the W. P. Carey School’s industry advisory board, which regularly provides feedback on trends and needs.

“They told us, ‘Why aren’t you teaching this? We need it!’ ” Goul said.

Neeraj Madan saw it too. He was working as a consultant with IBM in India when he realized that his approach to solving problems was changing.

“The clients can say a lot of things about the problems, but it’s always the data that has the real story,” he said.

Madan took a sabbatical from IBM and earned a master’s in business analytics at ASU earlier this year. He worked on a project analyzing five years’ worth of data about bicycle thefts on campus and made recommendations to the police about the best times to patrol.

“We told them the 20 hot spots where they could focus their energies,” he said.

Madan, who now works for IBM in Phoenix, said his degree work at ASU has changed his outlook.

“Everywhere around me now, I look for patterns,” he said.

That kind of insight demands creativity, Goul said, making analysts much more than number crunchers.

For example, one group of ASU students looked at sales of water and compared it with weather, finding that hurricanes and high temperatures correlated to higher sales.

“But then they found out that it’s not the actual temperature that does it. It’s the forecast,” Goul said. “Analytics is not pure ‘what are your sales’ and ‘what’s your inventory.’ It’s innovation.”

Goul said the field is changing so rapidly that ASU has already had to adjust, hiring faculty with experience in the health field, which is embracing big data fields like genomics, analyzing the functions and structure of genomes. Much of the data will be generated by things, not humans.

“Our next generation of products will have Internet capabilities like our phones do. Our glasses or pacemakers will be ‘phoning home’ with continuous, real-time information and adjusting on the fly,” Goul said.

Even though giant “data lakes” are being filled continuously, businesses are still trying to figure out what to do with all that information.

And these stakes are higher than choosing a good movie, like when “smart machines,” such as robots or driverless cars, are making the decisions.

Even though data is everywhere around us these days, the field of data analytics is still so new that accrediting bodies are just now determining how to make sure universities are offering the best curriculum, Goul said.

“I like to call it the world of data science cowboys.”

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