Home > data science, math education, modeling, open source tools, statistics > Columbia Data Science course, week 14: Presentations

Columbia Data Science course, week 14: Presentations

December 10, 2012

In the final week of Rachel Schutt’s Columbia Data Science course we heard from two groups of students as well as from Rachel herself.

Data Science; class consciousness

The first team of presenters consisted of Yegor, Eurry, and Adam. Many others whose names I didn’t write down contributed to the research, visualization, and writing.

First they showed us the very cool graphic explaining how self-reported skills vary by discipline. The data they used came from the class itself, which did this exercise on the first day:


so the star in the middle is the average for the whole class, and each star along the side corresponds to the average (self-reported) skills of people within a specific discipline. The dotted lines on the outside stars shows the “average” star, so it’s easier to see how things vary per discipline compared to the average.

Surprises: Business people seem to think they’re really great at everything except communication. Journalists are better at data wrangling than engineers.

We will get back to the accuracy of self-reported skills later.

We were asked, do you see your reflection in your star?

Also, take a look at the different stars. How would you use them to build a data science team? Would you want people who are good at different skills? Is it enough to have all the skills covered? Are there complementary skills? Are the skills additive, or do you need overlapping skills among team members?

Thought Experiment

If all data which had ever been collected were freely available to everyone, would we be better off?

Some ideas were offered:

  • all nude photos are included. [Mathbabe interjects: it’s possible to not let people take nude pics of you. Just sayin’.]
  • so are passwords, credit scores, etc.
  • how do we make secure transactions between a person and her bank considering this?
  • what does it mean to be “freely available” anyway?

The data of power; the power of data

You see a lot of people posting crap like this on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 10.28.19 AM

But here’s the thing: the Berner Convention doesn’t exist. People are posting this to their walls because they care about their privacy. People think they can exercise control over their data but they can’t. Stuff like this give one a false sense of security.

In Europe the privacy laws are stricter, and you can request data from Irish Facebook and they’re supposed to do it, but it’s still not easy to successfully do.

And it’s not just data that’s being collected about you – it’s data you’re collecting. As scientists we have to be careful about what we create, and take responsibility for our creations.

As Francois Rabelais said,

Wisdom entereth not into a malicious mind, and science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul.


Or as Emily Bell from Columbia said,

Every algorithm is editorial.


We can’t be evil during the day and take it back at hackathons at night. Just as journalists need to be aware that the way they report stories has consequences, so do data scientists. As a data scientist one has impact on people’s lives and how they think.

Here are some takeaways from the course:

  • We’ve gained significant powers in this course.
  • In the future we may have the opportunity to do more.
  • With data power comes data responsibility.

Who does data science empower?

The second presentation was given by Jed and Mike. Again, they had a bunch of people on their team helping out.

Thought experiment

Let’s start with a quote:

“Anything which uses science as part of its name isn’t political science, creation science, computer science.”

– Hal Abelson, MIT CS prof

Keeping this in mind, if you could re-label data science, would you? What would you call it?

Some comments from the audience:

  • Let’s call it “modellurgy,” the craft of beating mathematical models into shape instead of metal
  • Let’s call it “statistics”

Does it really matter what data science is? What should it end up being?

Chris Wiggins from Columbia contends there are two main views of what data science should end up being. The first stems from John Tukey, inventor of the fast fourier transform and the box plot, and father of exploratory data analysis. Tukey advocated for a style of research he called “data analysis”, emphasizing the primacy of data and therefore computation, which he saw as part of statistics. His descriptions of data analysis, which he saw as part of doing statistics, are very similar to what people call data science today.

The other prespective comes from Jim Gray, Computer Scientist from Microsoft. He saw the scientific ideals of the enlightenment age as expanding and evolving. We’ve gone from the theories of Darwin and Newton to experimental and computational approaches of Turing. Now we have a new science, a data-driven paradigm. It’s actually the fourth paradigm of all the sciences, the first three being experimental, theoretical, and computational. See more about this here.

Wait, can data science be both?

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 10.51.02 AM

Note it’s difficult to stick Computer Science and Data Science on this line.

Statistics is a tool that everyone uses. Data science also could be seen that way, as a tool rather than a science.

Who does data science?

Here’s a graphic showing the make-up of Kaggle competitors. Teams of students collaborated to collect, wrangle, analyze and visualize this data:


The size of the blocks correspond to how many people in active competitions have an education background in a given field. We see that almost a quarter of competitors are computer scientists. The shading corresponds to how often they compete. So we see the business finance people do more competitions on average than the computer science people.

Consider this: the only people doing math competitions are math people. If you think about it, it’s kind of amazing how many different backgrounds are represented above.

We got some cool graphics created by the students who collaborated to get the data, process it, visualize it and so on.

Which universities offer courses on Data Science?

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 11.04.57 AM

There will be 26 universities in total by 2013 that offer data science courses. The balls are centered at the center of gravity of a given state, and the balls are bigger if there are more in that state.

Where are data science jobs available?

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 11.09.27 AM


  • We see more professional schools offering data science courses on the west coast.
  • It would also would be interesting to see this corrected for population size.
  • Only two states had no jobs.
  • Massachusetts #1 per capita, then Maryland


McKinsey says there will be hundreds of thousands of data science jobs in the next few years. There’s a massive demand in any case. Some of us will be part of that. It’s up to us to make sure what we’re doing is really data science, rather than validating previously held beliefs.

We need to advance human knowledge if we want to take the word “scientist” seriously.

How did this class empower you?

You are one of the first people to take a data science class. There’s something powerful there.

Thank you Rachel!


Last Day of Columbia Data Science Class, What just happened? from Rachel’s perspective

Recall the stated goals of this class were:

  • learn about what it’s like to be a data scientists
  • be able to do some of what a data scientist does

Hey we did this! Think of all the guest lectures; they taught you a lot of what it’s like to be a data scientist, which was goal 1. Here’s what I wanted you guys to learn before the class started based on what a data scientist does, and you’ve learned a lot of that, which was goal 2:

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 11.23.56 AM

Mission accomplished! Mission accomplished?

Thought experiment that I gave to myself last Spring

How would you design a data science class?

Comments I made to myself:

  • It’s not a well-defined body of knowledge, subject, no textbook!
  • It’s popularized and celebrated in the press and media, but there’s no “authority” to push back
  • I’m intellectually disturbed by idea of teaching a course when the body of knowledge is ill-defined
  • I didn’t know who would show up, and what their backgrounds and motivations would be
  • Could it become redundant with a machine learning class?

My process

I asked questions of myself and from other people. I gathered information, and endured existential angst about data science not being a “real thing.” I needed to give it structure.

Then I started to think about it this way: while I recognize that data science has the potential to be a deep research area, it’s not there yet, and in order to actually design a class, let’s take a pragmatic approach: Recognize that data science exists. After all, there are jobs out there. I want to help students to be qualified for them. So let me teach them what it takes to get those jobs. That’s how I decided to approach it.

In other words, from this perspective, data science is what data scientists do. So it’s back to the list of what data scientists do. I needed to find structure on top of that, so the structure I used as a starting point were the data scientist profiles.

Data scientist profiles

This was a way to think about your strengths and weaknesses, as well as a link between speakers. Note it’s easy to focus on “technical skills,” but it can also be problematic in being too skills-based, as well as being problematic because it has no scale, and no notion of expertise. On the other hand it’s good in that it allows for and captures variability among data scientists.

I assigned weekly guest speakers topics related to their strengths. We held lectures, labs, and (optional) problem sessions. From this you got mad skillz:

  • programming in R
  • some python
  • you learned some best practices about coding

From the perspective of machine learning,

  • you know a bunch of algorithms like linear regression, logistic regression, k-nearest neighbors, k-mean, naive Bayes, random forests,
  • you know what they are, what they’re used for, and how to implement them
  • you learned machine learning concepts like training sets, test sets, over-fitting, bias-variance tradeoff, evaluation metrics, feature selection, supervised vs. unsupervised learning
  • you learned about recommendation systems
  • you’ve entered a Kaggle competition

Importantly, you now know that if there is an algorithm and model that you don’t know, you can (and will) look it up and figure it out. I’m pretty sure you’ve all improved relative to how you started.

You’ve learned some data viz by taking flowing data tutorials.

You’ve learned statistical inference, because we discussed

  • observational studies,
  • causal inference, and
  • experimental design.
  • We also learned some maximum likelihood topics, but I’d urge you to take more stats classes.

In the realm of data engineering,

  • we showed you map reduce and hadoop
  • we worked with 30 separate shards
  • we used an api to get data
  • we spent time cleaning data
  • we’ve processed different kinds of data

As for communication,

  • you wrote thoughts in response to blog posts
  • you observed how different data scientists communicate or present themselves, and have different styles
  • your final project required communicating among each other

As for domain knowledge,

  • lots of examples were shown to you: social networks, advertising, finance, pharma, recommender systems, dallas art museum

I heard people have been asking the following: why didn’t we see more data science coming from non-profits, governments, and universities? Note that data science, the term, was born in for-profits. But the truth is I’d also like to see more of that. It’s up to you guys to go get that done!

How do I measure the impact of this class I’ve created? Is it possible to incubate awesome data science teams in the classroom? I might have taken you from point A to point B but you might have gone there anyway without me. There’s no counterfactual!

Can we set this up as a data science problem? Can we use a causal modeling approach? This would require finding students who were more or less like you but didn’t take this class and use propensity score matching. It’s not a very well-defined experiment.

But the goal is important: in industry they say you can’t learn data science in a university, that it has to be on the job. But maybe that’s wrong, and maybe this class has proved that.

What has been the impact on you or to the outside world? I feel we have been contributing to the broader discourse.

Does it matter if there was impact? and does it matter if it can be measured or not? Let me switch gears.

What is data science again?

Data science could be defined as:

  • A set of best practices used in tech companies, which is how I chose to design the course
  • A space of problems that could be solved with data
  • A science of data where you can think of the data itself as units

The bottom two have the potential to be the basis of a rich and deep research discipline, but in many cases, the way the term is currently used is:

  • Pure hype

But it doesn’t matter how we define it, as much as that I want for you:

  • to be problem solvers
  • to be question askers
  • to think about your process
  • to use data responsibly and make the world better, not worse.

More on being problem solvers: cultivate certain habits of mind

Here’s a possible list of things to strive for, taken from here:

Screen Shot 2012-12-10 at 11.44.24 AM

Here’s the thing. Tons of people can implement k-nearest neighbors, and many do it badly. What matters is that you cultivate the above habits, remain open to continuous learning.

In education in traditional settings, we focus on answers. But what we probably should focus on is how a student behaves when they don’t know the answer. We need to have qualities that help us find the answer.

Thought experiment

How would you design a data science class around habits of mind rather than technical skills? How would you quantify it? How would you evaluate? What would students be able to write on their resumes?

Comments from the students:

  • You’d need to keep making people doing stuff they don’t know how to do while keeping them excited about it.
  • have people do stuff in their own domains so we keep up wonderment and awe.
  • You’d use case studies across industries to see how things work in different contexts

More on being question-askers

Some suggestions on asking questions of others:

  • start with assumption that you’re smart
  • don’t assume the person you’re talking to knows more or less. You’re not trying to prove anything.
  • be curious like a child, not worried about appearing stupid
  • ask for clarification around notation or terminology
  • ask for clarification around process: where did this data come from? how will it be used? why is this the right data to use? who is going to do what? how will we work together?

Some questions to ask yourself

  • does it have to be this way?
  • what is the problem?
  • how can I measure this?
  • what is the appropriate algorithm?
  • how will I evaluate this?
  • do I have the skills to do this?
  • how can I learn to do this?
  • who can I work with? Who can I ask?
  • how will it impact the real world?

Data Science Processes

In addition to being problem-solvers and question-askers, I mentioned that I want you to think about process. Here are a couple processes we discussed in this course:

(1) Real World –> Generates Data –>
–> Collect Data –> Clean, Munge (90% of your time)
–> Exploratory Data Analysis –>
–> Feature Selection –>
–> Build Model, Build Algorithm, Visualize
–> Evaluate –>Iterate–>
–> Impact Real World

(2) Asking questions of yourselves and others –>
Identifying problems that need to be solved –>
Gathering information, Measuring –>
Learning to find structure in unstructured situations–>
Framing Problem –>
Creating Solutions –> Evaluating

Thought experiment

Come up with a business that improves the world and makes money and uses data

Comments from the students:

  • autonomous self-driving cars you order with a smart phone
  • find all the info on people and then show them how to make it private
  • social network with no logs and no data retention

10 Important Data Science Ideas

Of all the blog posts I wrote this semester, here’s one I think is important:

10 Important Data Science Ideas

Confidence and Uncertainty

Let’s talk about confidence and uncertainty from a couple perspectives.

First, remember that statistical inference is extracting information from data, estimating, modeling, explaining but also quantifying uncertainty. Data Scientists could benefit from understanding this more. Learn more statistics and read Ben’s blog post on the subject.

Second, we have the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Have you ever wondered why don’t people say “I don’t know” when they don’t know something? This is partly explained through an unconscious bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Basically, people who are bad at something have no idea that they are bad at it and overestimate their confidence. People who are super good at something underestimate their mastery of it. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence.

Thought experiment

Design an app to combat the dunning-kruger effect.

Optimizing your life, Career Advice

What are you optimizing for? What do you value?

  • money, need some minimum to live at the standard of living you want to, might even want a lot.
  • time with loved ones and friends
  • doing good in the world
  • personal fulfillment, intellectual fulfillment
  • goals you want to reach or achieve
  • being famous, respected, acknowledged
  • ?
  • some weighted function of all of the above. what are the weights?

What constraints are you under?

  • external factors (factors outside of your control)
  • your resources: money, time, obligations
  • who you are, your education, strengths & weaknesses
  • things you can or cannot change about yourself

There are many possible solutions that optimize what you value and take into account the constraints you’re under.

So what should you do with your life?

Remember that whatever you decide to do is not permanent so don’t feel too anxious about it, you can always do something else later –people change jobs all the time

But on the other hand, life is short, so always try to be moving in the right direction (optimizing for what you care about).

If you feel your way of thinking or perspective is somehow different than what those around you are thinking, then embrace and explore that, you might be onto something.

I’m always happy to talk to you about your individual case.

Next Gen Data Scientists

The second blog post I think is important is this “manifesto” that I wrote:

Next-Gen Data Scientists. That’s you! Go out and do awesome things, use data to solve problems, have integrity and humility.

Here’s our class photo!


  1. December 10, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Wish I coulda’ been there, the course truly sounds like a healthy trend in data-driven tools. Whether it’s involving a new science I guess has to wait for long-term evaluation. I’m encouraged that R-programming was touched on, as were a Bayesian viewpoint, which is the very essence of being open to new data.

    Turin used Bayesian techniques (and NOT frequentist tools) in the first computers to break the Nazi Enigma codes and to destroy the submarine Wolfpacks threatening the existence of Britain. If the misguided UK justice system had destroyed Turin earlier than it did, the outcome of WW2 would have been quite different.


  2. Dave Bayer
    December 13, 2012 at 10:54 am

    I share a widespread prejudice that only insecure fields far from science use the word “science” in their name. (Is a Ph.D. practitioner of Data Science called a Data Dr. ?) Is there any hope of a more thoughtful, confident and descriptive name for this field?


  1. December 15, 2012 at 9:06 am
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: