Universities set to get wise to the demands of Big Data

Why a degree in Big Data could be a passport to a big career

I haevn't always been an IT journalist. My first job on leaving university was working for a supermarket chain, not stacking shelves, but crunching numbers. My job was to look at sales figures and various social demographics to assess where to put supermarkets. It involved market research, examing turnover at other branches and detailed examination of population, car ownership, average income etc.

To say that it was an unsophisticated approach would be a gross understatement. Our figures were often out-of-date; our research was rudimentary and we had no access to any computers, not even PCs (this was in the days before Visicalc and 1-2-3 let alone Excel). It involved some basic mathematics as we calculated our own algorithms but no-one in the department was a maths graduate (I'd studied as part of my degree but as a minor subject rather than a major) and our conclusions relied on guesswork as much as anything (they must have been reasonably successful, I went past the site of one of our branches a few years back and it was still there, 25 years after being opened.

We operated that way because that was the way that things were done then. Gathering and analysing information was still seen as some arcane art - there were plenty of senior figures in the company who thought that we were introducing fancy methods over good, old-fashioned gut instinct.

How times change: the spreadsheet has become an important part of any executive's armoury and even that is now seen as a blunt tool - a stone-age compared to the super-laser weaponry of modern analytic techniques.

And it's clear that this year will see any increasing emphasis on gathering and analysing an overwhelming volume of information. We're already seeing that, in the many predictions given by leading industry figures, big data – the rather clumsy name given to the way that unwieldy datasets can be handled more easily - will play a prominent part. 

This is not to say that Big Data is a here today, gone tomorrow sort of technology: we’re talking something that’s going to be a major part of IT for the next decade: companies are dealing with bigger and bigger data-sets and and need to crunch that information far more quickly.

EMC’s CTO for global marketing, Chuck Hollis, made this point in his blog last year, when, in his Top 10 predictions for 2012, he pointed out that the growing demand for Big Data was going to create a lot of opportunities within companies - and a lot of employment too.

“Many people realize that big data - especially analytics at scale - is the new intellectual ‘power tool’… Demand for smart people who can artfully blend advanced math with social sciences and have a knack for visualization and storytelling - well, they're in incredibly short supply. “ 

It comes as little surprise then that a university has seized on the growth of this new discipline and launched a course that tackles this very subject. The North Western University in the USA is set to offer an MSc in Analytics - a course designed in conjunction with IBM.

In a statement, Northwestern's dean of engineering, Julio Ottino said “Business leaders are faced with an enormous, and ever-increasing, amount of complexity. It is critical that we prepare the next generation of leaders with the skills to find trends and patterns in this vast amount of data. The field of analytics provides powerful tools to find meaning and opportunity amid complexity."

I'm sure we'll see more universities go down this path: it's a discipline that didn't really exist five years ago and yet it's going to be a dominant force in enterprises for some years to come.

Businesses will want more information delivered sooner - there's money in that data. The more accurate information they have on a customer, the easier they find it to deliver targeted special offers - detailed analytics is going to be a big revenue driver in the future.

Graduates will no longer be  required to sit down and make predictions on the basis of some rough and ready calculations but will be able to make bold and accurate forecasts on future profitability. The emergence of university courses in the subject is just the start of an industry transformation - and that's something that's easy to predict.



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