Demand grows for data scientists

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People who can turn big data into useful information are in growing demand in the private sector; is government keeping up with the trend?

The world is full of data – 2.5 quintillion new bytes of it every day – but despite humanity's growing technological prowess, it still takes well trained, intelligent and intensely curious minds to sift the signal from the noise.

That is why the Harvard Business Review recently dubbed the position of data scientist as the "sexiest job of the 21st century," citing a 15,000 percent increase in job postings from 2011 to 2012 -- growth almost entirely due to organizations battling to keep their heads above the big data tidal wave.

Data science's sex appeal is certainly debatable, but beyond doubt is the demand for their services -- and the data-driven successes in the private sector. The Googles, LinkedIns and Facebooks of the world have all spoken publicly about how these master data manipulators have turned big data into big insights and big profits.

The same incentives for private sector companies to hire data scientists don't always exist in the federal sector, but data scientists are certainly making noise within federal agencies, too. It is part of a "paradigm shift" in data creation, according to Dr. Robert Hummel, vice president and Chief Scientist at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Hummel, formerly a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, was part of a panel discussion on the emerging role of data scientists from Carahsoft's third annual Government Big Data forum in Washington, D.C., on April 4.

Hummel explained that, decades ago, agencies spent massive amounts of money collecting information. Collected information was analyzed, of course, by the 1970s and 1980s predecessor to today's data scientists.

"Now the data is flooding us, it flows to us naturally from many communities, and that has allowed for a large range of new possibilities," said Hummel, who said the field is too new to say how many data scientists the government needs.

However, he said, data science -- by teasing out the occasional needle in the proverbial big data haystack -- is already signaling its importance to the federal government.

"I think the government is awakening to the idea that data science can provide models that have great utility for a variety of missions that are important to the government," Hummel said.

And as agencies look to do more with their data, they may find that some of the talent is already there. Data scientists have been around for years, but were usually outside the spotlight and working under different job titles.

"Data scientists are not a new role, it's just a new way of calling themselves," said Joey Echeverria, Principal Solutions Architect at Cloudera.

Right now, it is tough to tell how many data scientists the federal government employs. As Echeverria pointed out, not everyone who does the work of a data scientist is actually called by that title.

A recent poll by the Government Business Council of 313 executives in 27 federal agencies said only four percent of execs were currently hiring data scientists. The seeming lack of hires may be related to sequestration, tight budgets or a lack of big data strategies at the top of organizations. (Read FCW'searlier coverage.)

When agencies do hire data scientists, they should look for a very particular set of skills.

"Curiosity is the number one skill above all else," Echeverria said. "If you find those curious people able to tell stories and explain how they can extract value from data, that's who you want. They understand the data itself, and understand the domain they are working in. The easiest way to convince someone they need data scientists is to talk with them."

Data scientists often have backgrounds in mathematics, advanced computing, visualization, data warehousing, statistics and other fields, and skills in the technologies and tools that tame and process big data, like Hadoop, cloud computing and data visualization tools.

Yet few, if any, individual data scientists are proficient in all of these categories, and such a data superstar would no doubt be in high demand.

The better bet, said Dr. Calvin Andrus, Innovation Officer at the Central Intelligence Agency's Office of the CIO, is to hire a high-quality team of data experts.

Andrus outlined a challenging intelligence effort that his agency recently undertook, in which a whole team of data scientists combined their skillsets to manage and complete a mission that would have been impossible for any individual.

"The best data scientist in the world could not have solved that problem," Andrus said. "We put together a data science team. You want a team without having to find the one data scientist who will save us all."

Andrus said he'd "like to see more science in data science," and it certainly seems a likely scenario. Running a MapReduce job in Hadoop used to be kind of a big deal, but now that's relatively routine -- which again emphasizes why curious data scientists might hold the keys to driving more insights from big data. "At some point, I hope data science is a given," said Michael Parks, Solutions Architect and EMC.

It seems well on the way.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

Cyber. Covered.

Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Sun, Apr 28, 2013 R. Litvak

This no different than what statisticians, marketers, and Wall Street "quants" have been doing for years. The job titles have just been packaged into one fable know it all industry genius that will solve all your problems and make decisions for you. People can't find these "data scientists" because expectations are unclear and unrealistic.

Wed, Apr 17, 2013

THis goes in the "duh" column. It was a team of talented (some greatly so, some not so great because we are all humans) that got us to the moon and all returned safely. The problem always has been those at the top trying to make a name for themselves don't understand the concept of a team effort. Too much TV where one guy (The Mentalist) solves the problem and all around him are his minions. That's not how it works. The fact the govt is just "waking up" to the need for data scientists is testament to individuals in many parts of the govt working on making sure their own agenda the most is the best one out there. They want to be The Mentalist and go down in history as the most important person who has ever lived. No understanding of team at all. At the same time govt employees are garbage, right? Why the heck would anyone in their right mind want to work as a federal employee. The only happy federal employees are the one's at the top who have made a name for themselves and shine as a glorius beacon to all humanity. One VERY good thing about working for the govt though. With all the money at your disposal, if you stand out and get promoted, you will wield enormous POWER to craft a legacy of your own, and you will have minions (in thei case "data scientists") to help make you look really good. So if you want to make a difference, regardless of the wisdom of the difference you might make, the govt is the place for you. If you are a normal person who wants to be on a team that solves many of mankinds greatest problems, I'd strongly recommend NOT working for the federal govt. By the way, the benefits are really not that great and are getting worse. Now STATE govt, that's the place to be.

Wed, Apr 10, 2013

Data will admit to anything, if you torture it enough.

Mon, Apr 8, 2013

Good luck on doing data modeling for the Government. They will find so many dead ends that everyone will cringe!

Sat, Apr 6, 2013 IT Dude

If the government wants to recruit talented Data Scientists, the government is going to have to make a lot of changes in the way it treats its existing employees. Why would anyone choose to work for an employer that consistently denigrates its workers publicly and pays less than the average market wage?

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