Data-driven dreamers develop new RSO, DREAM

What events generate the most excitement among MNSU students? Hockey games at the Verizon Wireless Center? Theatre productions in the Performing Arts building? How about a discussion of data science in a meeting room on the second floor of the CSU on a Wednesday night?

It may come as a surprise, but that is precisely where you would find some of the most passion on campus today.

Dr. Rajeev Bukralia, who left the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and began teaching at MNSU last fall is the faculty advisor of Database Resources for Eager and Aspiring Minds (DREAM), a newly-formed RSO this semester. He and the student members of the group are enthusiastic about exploring the possibilities of data science. For most, the term “data science” may not mean much. They may be surprised to find that behind this vague, unassuming name is a wealth of incredible technology, creativity, and opportunity.

We are living in an unprecedented era of data collection. Since the dawn of humanity, humans have been making choices. What is so revolutionary is that now, Dr. Bukralia explains, the choices we make throughout the day can be recorded by smartphones, social media, and sensors, among other things.

Data in the digital world can be collected, analyzed, and strategically utilized en masse. The accumulated data of billions of people across the globe is so important because it can be analyzed. Data analysis can tell stories and suggest solutions that we otherwise might have been oblivious to.

Dr. Bukralia emphasizes that data science is a broad field, incorporating anything and everything related to data, from its collection, to its analysis, to its practical application. Data science is not a restricted field of study, but rather a field of study by which all other fields of study can be better understood. Because of this, data scientists come from a wide range of backgrounds. Dr. Bukralia explains that data science draws not only from fields such as information technology, computer science, and mathematics, but also from some more surprising ones such as philosophy and linguistics.

Dr. Bukralia stresses that there is one characteristic necessary for successful data scientists.

“The one requirement we have is this: one needs to be curious. It doesn’t matter if they know information technology. It doesn’t matter if they know math. It doesn’t matter if they have business acumen. If they do, that’s great. But one thing they must have is a sense of curiosity.”

Without concrete examples, data science may seem confusingly abstract to those unfamiliar with the concept. How is data science applied in the real world? Dr. Bukralia points to several examples of how students have transformed their curiosity into projects.

One of Dr. Bukralia’s students at UW Green Bay was curious as to how loyal Packers’ fans are to their team in comparison to fans of other NFC North teams. He devised an algorithm that examined the positivity of fan reactions on Twitter before, during, and after games.

DREAM’s vice president Umanga Poudel, is focusing on Mankato cell phone users, attempting to determine what factors are most likely to make a customer keep the same phone provider. To do this, he is using Watson, IBM’s supercomputer that is perhaps best known for – as explained in a New York Times article by John Markoff – soundly defeating humans on Jeopardy in 2011. All DREAM members have been granted special licenses to make use of Watson. This is just one of number of opportunities DREAM plans to offer its members.

Dr. Bukralia adds that data science is being used to developed such innovations as personalized medicine and furniture. Personalized medicine, with which Dr. Bukralia has had experience, could mean analyzing a patient’s medical data and translating it into a customized treatment that would optimally accommodate that patient’s unique characteristics. It could also mean analyzing massive quantities of medical data in order to discover new symptoms of deadly diseases that could prove crucial in providing early treatment.

Dr. Bukralia uses the example of a chair to illustrate the impact personalized furniture may have on our lives in the future. A chair could be covered with sensors and then given to a customer for a month. After that month, the data recorded by those sensors will give insight into the customer’s sitting habits and body shape. This information could then be used to create the “perfect chair” for the customer.

In fact, data science might even be used to answer the question in the opening line of this article.

“Any organization can have only two strategic assets – one is data, the other is people,” says Dr. Bukralia.

“If you do not know how to really harness data, then you are really in trouble as an organization. All the innovation is coming through the careful analysis of data. Data is everywhere and we are collecting more and more data.”

Because of the powerful economic opportunities that data science creates for businesses, data scientists are a highly-valued commodity in the modern workforce. While many jobs are at risk of being swallowed up by automation technology, data scientists are pioneering the frontier of technology.

A 2009 article for the Harvard Business Review by Thomas Davenport and D.J. Patil describes the data scientist as “the hot job of the decade” because “as companies rush to capitalize on the potential of big data, the largest constraint many face is the scarcity of [the] special talent [of data scientists].”

The opportunities in data science are lucrative, but the field is new. Dr. Bukralia notes that only a handful of universities – including his former institution, UW Green Bay – offer programs in data science.

Data science is not without potential pitfalls. Because of its sheer power and vast reach, its issues are society’s issues. The implications of data privacy breaches and artificial intelligence, for example, are hot controversies in the digital world.

“As much as we are curious and enthusiastic about the potential of data science to harness value from data and find meaningful insights in it,” says Dr. Bukralia “we have to develop solutions that can mitigate the risk of data privacy, data security, and ethics.”

Dr. Bukralia notes that he was surprised by the response from students to the creation of the group.

“The response has been tremendous and we have not even been promoting it [much] yet.”

Amanda Wunderlin is DREAM’s secretary. “My interest in data science comes from the fact that I love database technology,” she says. “That’s my passion in the IT world. But I also like statistics and analysis and it just meshed the two together really well. I’m excited about it.”

David Wahl explains that he was enticed to the group by the enthusiasm of its members, the opportunity to listen to guest speakers working in the field, and the opportunity to participate in workshops. He is particularly interested in data security.

“I want to go into business analytics after college,” says Jeremy Klein, DREAM public relations representative. “We get exposure to real world problems and real world softwares. In the RSO, you can bring any problem, any project, any homework, and there are a bunch of people who want to be there and want to help and want to find answers. DREAM gives you a place to apply the knowledge that you’re learning [in classes].”

DREAM meets every other Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in the MSSA office. The next meeting will be held on Feb. 8. DREAM president Faical Rayani stresses that the group is open to all MNSU students, not just those with experience in data analytics.

DREAM’s mission is to raise awareness for this exciting, innovative field of data science and to offer resources and opportunities for students interested in pursuing it.

“My students are my inspiration,” says Dr. Bukralia. “I derive my energy from them. When they do exciting things, then I want to do exciting things.”

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