How a university is turning all students into data Don Juans

Taking a renaissance approach, Lehigh University will train students to use data science in fields ranging from journalism to marketing.

When USA Today suggests data analysts may have the sexiest job of the 21st century, you know that: (1) The geeks are just rubbing it in now; (2) the era of Big Data is fundamentally remaking how industry, government, and education approach their work. Unfortunately, the number of people who are qualified to become these data Don Juans seriously trails the demand. In 2011, the McKinsey Institute predicted that by 2018 the U.S. would face a shortage of 140,000-190,000 people with deep analytical skills, plus a shortfall of 1.5 million managers and analysts who could interpret the data well enough to make good decisions.

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Not surprisingly, higher education has rushed to fill the gap, with more than 50 universities now offering programs in data science and big data. But data is only useful within context. Unless analysts also have a keen understanding of their specific fields—be it healthcare, baseball, or journalism—no amount of algorithmic ability will allow them to extract the maximum value from the hosepipe of incoming data. The need for graduates who can bridge both worlds—equally adept in their chosen fields and in the arcane science of data analysis—is the impetus behind Data X, an interdisciplinary initiative recently launched at Lehigh University.

As part of Data X, the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Lehigh will almost double in size, going from 14 to approximately 25 faculty members, and an additional 6 new faculty hires will bring their computer science expertise to bear within the university’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Business and Economics. The initial focus will be on three disciplines: digital media, consumer analytics, and connective health.

“Given the reach of computer science today, we could have chosen a dozen different focus areas, but we decided to start with three,” explained Dan Lopresti, director of Data X as well as professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “Healthcare is a big issue for society, and there’s tremendous value in computing and data analytics. As for digital media, the whole journalism field has changed dramatically. Data is now being used in journalism in a lot of interesting and cool ways.”

Consumer analytics will play a key role within the Marketing Department in the College of Business and Economics. “The simple fact is that marketing now sees a ton of data, and most people coming out of school are not trained to handle that,” said David A. Griffith, professor and chair of the Marketing Department. “Higher education has always trained students in the basic market-research techniques, but we haven’t trained people very well how to apply technology and programming skills so that we can better understand the data that’s coming to the world.”

(Next page: A culture of interdisciplinary cooperation for Data X)

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