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How much of data science is busy work?

July 2, 2012

I’m at math camp, about to start the first day (4 hours of teaching a day, 3 hours of problem session) with my three junior staff (last year I only had one!). I expect I’ll be blogging quite a bit in the next few days about math camp stuff but today I wanted to respond to this blog post, entitled “The Fallacy of the Data Scientist Shortage”. I found this on Data Science Central which I had never known about but looks to be a good resource.

The author, Neil Radan, makes the point that, although we seem to have a shortage of data scientists, mostly what they do can be done by non-specialists. Just as you waste your time during a plane trip on things like security, waiting to board, and taxiing, the average data scientist spends most of her time cleaning data and moving it around.

If I understand this post correctly, they are saying that, because data scientists don’t spend that much time doing creative stuff, they can be replaced by someone who is good with data.

Hmm… let’s first go back to the idea that data scientists spend most of their time cleaning and moving data. This is true, but what do we conclude from it? It’s something like saying concert cellists spend most of their time practicing scales and rosining their bows, and don’t do all that much actual performing. Or, you could compare it to math professors who spend most of their time meeting (or avoiding) students and not much time proving new theorems.

My point is that this fact of time management is maybe a universal rule. Or even better, it may be a universal rule for creative endeavors. If you’re a truck driver then you can fairly said you worked the whole time you drove across the country, at a pretty consistent pace. But if you’re doing something that requires thought and puzzling then the nature of things is that it isn’t an 8-hour-a-day activity.

It’s more like, as a data scientist, you work hard to see the data in a certain way, which takes lots of time depending on how much data you have, then you make a decision based on what you’ve seen, then you set up the next test.

And I don’t think this can be done by someone who is strictly good at moving around data but isn’t trained as a modeler or statistician or the like. Because the hard part isn’t the data munging, it’s the part where you decide what test to perform that will give you the maximum information, and also the part where you look at the results and decipher them – decide whether they are what you expected, and if not, what could explain what you’re seeing.

I do think that data scientists can and should be paired with people who are experts at data moving and cleaning, because then the whole process is more efficient. Maybe data scientists can be brought in as 2-hour-per-day consultants or something, and the rest of the time there can be some engineers working on their tests. That might work.

Categories: data science
  1. albrt
    July 3, 2012 at 12:33 am

    >Maybe data scientists can be brought in as 2-hour-per-day consultants or something

    Exxx-cellent! [rubs hands together like Montgomery Burns]

    Isn’t efficiency grand! It sounds like you could hold down four 2-hour-per-day jobs at different institutions. Hmmm, seems like I’ve heard of that somewhere before? Anyway, maybe you can even earn enough to pay for one of Obama’s health insurance policies!

    Disarticulation of skilled jobs has wiped out most of the rest of the middle class, why not the statisticians?


  2. July 15, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    I think that if data scientists offered data science apprenticeships cleaning data it would be mutually beneficial.


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