If you fancy yourself a future Fortune 500 CEO of a designer shoe label or aspire to be the next Don Draper and “buy the world a Coke”, you may…
I spent this past summer working at an economic development agency for the technology sector of Massachusetts. Specifically, I conducted research to support the state’s initiative that figures out the best ways to leverage Massachusetts’ strength in “Big Data” to develop the economy here. But what exactly is big data and where does data science come in?
Big Data is actually a very simple term, it refers to really big data sets. And what makes a data set really big is that it can’t be processed on your computer, or my computer; it needs a special computer in order to be stored, processed, and analyzed. And data science is the field that studies big data—how to organize, process, analyze, and capitalize on it. Many companies have access to big data, and are beginning to figure out what to do with it. Some are developing data science departments within the company to analyze the company’s own data sets and others are sending their data to another company to organize and/or analyze it for them. For example, major retail firms have data on customer transactions going back some time. Some of these firms may choose to hire a marketing firm that uses data science techniques to figure out the best advertising methods to use for that particular firm based on the customer data.
I’m posting about big data and data science because I’m excited about the fact that there’s a whole new, rapidly emerging discipline that’s approaching data as a thing to study. Not everyone is as excited about data as I am, which I hesitantly understand, but I believe that everyone should be aware of it’s increasing importance. Here are some examples of the ways in which data science is changing our lives. Programmers at Facebook create algorithms that determine what comes up on our Newsfeed every time we go to Facebook (check out this What's the Point podcast on Buzzfeed's social media analytics). Boston has developed software that uses real time data to ensure that firefighters know as much as possible about the building they are going to enter before entering it (read more about Civic Tech in Boston). NYC’s department of transportation used data to determine the locations of the city’s bike paths and in the creation of the pedestrian-only plaza in Times Square (and this one on Urban Planning in NYC). The advertisements we see on Google are a result of data analytics. And some of the policies that directly impact our lives are being evaluated by researchers using data, who hope to impact future policy decisions.
As a economics major at Tufts, it’s easy to get sucked into the theoretical parts of the discipline. This disconnect between academia and the real world is applicable to many disciplines, and I have come to see data as a way to think about the real world applications of economics. I’m currently starting the process of writing a thesis at Tufts, which means spending a lot of time with data. I know that there are real people behind the numbers I’m working with and that my research could (theoretically) have an impact on people’s lives. The data I’m working with may not be “big,” but it’s having a big impact on how I relate to my studies at Tufts and how I think about what I want to do when I graduate.