January 4, 2016

Area colleges focus on big data

Contributed Photo
Elke Rundensteiner, professor in charge of data analytics at WPI, walks her class through some of the ways the field can be used to help business.
Leonard Samborowski, Nichols College management professor

Before he was a management professor at Nichols College, Leonard Samborowski worked for the head of army intelligence at the Pentagon, where he used data analytics to predict the outcome of possible military moves.

"We would look at information in a computer and see what the bad guys would do next," he said.

It was this work, plus his passion for sports, that inspired Samborowski to create a sports analytics class for management students at Nichols. The new class linked students up with Nichols sports teams, as well as the semi-pro football Worcester County Wildcats, to analyze sports data, like Brad Pitt's character did in the movie "Moneyball."

"[Coaches are] too busy to look at numbers while they're coaching, but they're looking at this free visual of what to do at 2nd (down) and 7 (yard to go), if it's a rainy day and it's four o'clock in the afternoon," Samborowski said.

As the world faces a shortage of properly trained data professionals, several colleges in Central Massachusetts are looking at ways to help fill that void.

Big data, at its core, basically refers to the ability to analyze large sets of data. Scientists and large companies have been using it for years, but today its use has become more widespread because of the increased storage capacity of computers and mobile devices.

A 2011 report from McKinsey Global Institute predicted by 2018, the U.S. could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 qualified data analysts, as well as 1.5 million managers who know how to use big data to make decisions.

Here in Massachusetts, colleges and universities graduated about 6,170 students from undergraduate and graduate computer and data science related programs in 2014, but companies still had difficulty finding enough qualified data scientists and software engineers.

Although experts say the shortage is inevitable, colleges here are doing their part to help. At Becker College, six students are enrolled in a new undergraduate data program where they will be exposed to algebraic and statistical tools as well as programming languages.

Becker is looking to add a master's degree in data science by 2016, geared towards business analysts looking to move their careers in a new direction.

"As of last September, they were around 120 programs in the U.S. alone in analytics ... but only 14 programs out of them were at the undergraduate level," said Feyzi Bagirov, director of data science at Becker. "We at Becker decided to put this program in place to fill that void."

Worcester Polytechnic Institute has offered a master's in data science for two years, and this year added a Ph.D. program in big data, one of the first in the nation. This fall, WPI received a $885,834 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to finance six Ph.D. students.

The master's in data science requires students to complete an experiential component, where students work on projects assigned to them by companies in the industry. They have six projects lined up for January, including one with Natick software developer MathWorks.

"[Students] learn a lot by understanding how business works. We give them something really good on their resume, they learn how to advance and behave in a business," said Elke Rundensteiner, WPI professor of data analytics.

Worcester State University has a big data analytics concentration, which launched in the fall of 2014. Professor Elena Braynova said students concentrate in data analysis and software development, so they can work as software developers in data science.

At Clark University, the graduate school of management is considering adding a degree in analytics, which could have a big data component.

The first step towards that, a concentration in information management and business analytics, will be offered in August 2016. Dean Catherine Usoff has worked with business people with big data experience to identify industry needs.

According to the 2014 Massachusetts Big Data Report, Massachusetts has 500 companies participating in the state's big data ecosystem, 13 of which are headquartered in Worcester County.

Organizations like the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative are trying to get students who are trained here to stay here, by providing them with opportunities to meet entrepreneurs and executives in their field.

One of these gatherings, called Tech Trek, came to Worcester for the first time in April 2015.

Though Worcester's colleges produce many qualified data analysts, Worcester does struggle to retain qualified young professionals, said Josh Croake, a WPI alum and co-founder of Action! Worcester, a nonprofit focused on connecting young professionals.

"If the [data analytics] industry does exist here in the city, the students don't seem to be gravitating towards it. Students in Worcester aren't actively searching for jobs in Worcester post graduation, just overall," he said.

Companies like Hanover Insurance and National Grid do a great job recruiting students from nearby colleges, but efforts need to be made to make Worcester more attractive to young people, Karen Pelletier, director of higher education and business partnerships at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce,

"There needs to be a lot more done as to getting [students] to know what's here," Pelletier said.

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