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IBM, Universities Team Up To Build Data Scientists

Big Blue program aims to prepare students for a workplace increasingly driven by data.

 Big Data Analytics Masters Degrees: 20 Top Programs
Big Data Analytics Masters Degrees: 20 Top Programs
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What's big data without data scientists to interpret it? Hoping to draw more students toward a career in data analytics, IBM is working with several top U.S. universities to develop courses that provide the analytics skills required for today's business environment.

Big Blue's university involvement isn't new, but the tech giant has stepped up its efforts to bring big data to academia. In the past 18 months, for instance, IBM has built new partnerships with Michigan State, Northwestern University, Yale and the University of Southern California, according to IBM manager of analytics academic programs Rich Rodts.

"We're working with universities to provide help with curricula, technology, and real-world projects to help them teach this technology, and to help students put it into practice," said Rodts in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

[ Could crowdsourcing help get your big data tasks done? Read more at Can't Hire Big Data Staff? Try Enterprise Crowdsourcing. ]

IBM's efforts are designed to help schools produce a new breed of data scientist -- a job description that is quite new. "'Data scientist' is an interesting term. I've been in this industry for quite some time, and I just learned it eight months ago," Rodts said.

So what does the job entail?

"When I look at a data scientist, I look at someone who has to have an understanding of why analytics is important -- and more importantly, what data is needed to make that analysis relevant," Rodts explained.

Some of the IBM program's real-world projects focus more on communication than scientific skills, such as how to present excellent analytic output to a CEO, who quite possibly won't understand the technology behind big data. "This person doesn't know what a p-value is, and really doesn't care," said Rodts. "What we need to do as data scientists is explain how to interpret the data, and how to potentially act on it, based on a business need."

Universities across the U.S. are carving out unique niches within the field of analytics. "In Michigan, a lot of institutions are trying to position themselves as leaders in manufacturing analytics. At some schools out east, they're looking at consumer insight analytics," Rodts said.

IBM sees its Watson supercomputer, best known for routing its fellow (human) contestants during a 2011 appearance on Jeopardy, as having a bright future in big data.

Big Blue last summer started an internship program where students can work with IBM staff and clients on business projects that utilize Watson's cognitive computing skills, including natural language processing, machine learning and hypothesis generation. "When you look at the horizon of what's there, you see the next step, which is cognitive computing," said Rodts.

IBM isn't the only technology firm to bring big data to the classroom. Database software provider Teradata offers a free Web-based certification training program for university students, who can study to become either a Teradata certified professional or certified associate. "We're seeing an explosion within business schools, which is interesting because if you look at where this technology came from, it was more centered on social sciences, specifically psychology and political science," Rodts said.

From a big data standpoint, these academic programs are hugely important, according to Rodts. "A lot of times, as soon as students graduate they have jobs waiting for them -- and we at IBM have hired a few of them as well."

Retailers are using data scientists to develop analytics that explore customer behavior in greater detail. "The professionals who are putting those complex models into place are in very short supply," said Rodts. "And that's what these degree programs are focused on."

Predictive analysis is getting faster, more accurate and more accessible. Combined with big data, it's driving a new age of experiments. Also in the new, all-digital Advanced Analytics issue of InformationWeek: Are project management offices a waste of money? (Free registration required.)

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