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Data Science - seems to be everywhere, but what exactly is it? This is a really good post.

The future belongs to the companies and people that turn data into products.

bart simpson computer springface Facebook

You should read the whole article - here are a few snippets:

The web is full of “data-driven apps.” Almost any e-commerce application is a data-driven application. There’s a database behind a web front end, and middleware that talks to a number of other databases and data services (credit card processing companies, banks, and so on). But merely using data isn’t really what we mean by “data science.” A data application acquires its value from the data itself, and creates more data as a result. It’s not just an application with data; it’s a data product. Data science enables the creation of data products.

Google is a master at creating data products. Here’s a few examples:

  • Google’s breakthrough was realizing that a search engine could use input other than the text on the page. Google’s PageRank algorithm was among the first to use data outside of the page itself, in particular, the number of links pointing to a page. Tracking links made Google searches much more useful, and PageRank has been a key ingredient to the company’s success.
  • Spell checking isn’t a terribly difficult problem, but by suggesting corrections to misspelled searches, and observing what the user clicks in response, Google made it much more accurate. They’ve built a dictionary of common misspellings, their corrections, and the contexts in which they occur.
  • Speech recognition has always been a hard problem, and it remains difficult. But Google has made huge strides by using the voice data they’ve collected, and has been able to integrate voice search into their core search engine.
  • During the Swine Flu epidemic of 2009, Google was able to track the progress of the epidemic by following searches for flu-related topics.

Google isn’t the only company that knows how to use data. Facebook and LinkedIn use patterns of friendship relationships to suggest other people you may know, or should know, with sometimes frightening accuracy. Amazon saves your searches, correlates what you search for with what other users search for, and uses it to create surprisingly appropriate recommendations. These recommendations are “data products” that help to drive Amazon’s more traditional retail business. They come about because Amazon understands that a book isn’t just a book, a camera isn’t just a camera, and a customer isn’t just a customer; customers generate a trail of “data exhaust” that can be mined and put to use, and a camera is a cloud of data that can be correlated with the customers’ behavior, the data they leave every time they visit the site.

The thread that ties most of these applications together is that data collected from users provides added value. Whether that data is search terms, voice samples, or product reviews, the users are in a feedback loop in which they contribute to the products they use. That’s the beginning of data science.

Where data comes fromData is everywhere: your government, your web server, your business partners, even your body. While we aren’t drowning in a sea of data, we’re finding that almost everything can (or has) been instrumented. At O’Reilly, we frequently combine publishing industry data fromNielsen BookScan with our own sales data, publicly available Amazon data, and even job data to see what’s happening in the publishing industry. Sites like Infochimps and Factual provide access to many large datasets, including climate data, MySpace activity streams, and game logs from sporting events. Factual enlists users to update and improve its datasets, which cover topics as diverse as endocrinologists to hiking trails.

Working with data at scaleWe’ve all heard a lot about “big data,” but “big” is really a red herring. Oil companies, telecommunications companies, and other data-centric industries have had huge datasets for a long time. And as storage capacity continues to expand, today’s “big” is certainly tomorrow’s “medium” and next week’s “small.” The most meaningful definition I’ve heard: “big data” is when the size of the data itself becomes part of the problem. We’re discussing data problems ranging from gigabytes to petabytes of data. At some point, traditional techniques for working with data run out of steam.

Making data tell its storyA picture may or may not be worth a thousand words, but a picture is certainly worth a thousand numbers. The problem with most data analysis algorithms is that they generate a set of numbers. To understand what the numbers mean, the stories they are really telling, you need to generate a graph. Edward Tufte’s Visual Display of Quantitative Information is the classic for data visualization, and a foundational text for anyone practicing data science. But that’s not really what concerns us here. Visualization is crucial to each stage of the data scientist. According to Martin Wattenberg (@wattenberg, founder of Flowing Media), visualization is key to data conditioning: if you want to find out just how bad your data is, try plotting it. Visualization is also frequently the first step in analysis. Hilary Mason says that when she gets a new data set, she starts by making a dozen or more scatter plots, trying to get a sense of what might be interesting. Once you’ve gotten some hints at what the data might be saying, you can follow it up with more detailed analysis.

Data scientistsData science requires skills ranging from traditional computer science to mathematics to art. Describing the data science group he put together at Facebook (possibly the first data science group at a consumer-oriented web property), Jeff Hammerbacher said:

… on any given day, a team member could author a multistage processing pipeline in Python, design a hypothesis test, perform a regression analysis over data samples with R, design and implement an algorithm for some data-intensive product or service in Hadoop, or communicate the results of our analyses to other members of the organization 3

The future belongs to the companies who figure out how to collect and use data successfully. Google, Amazon, Facebook, and LinkedIn have all tapped into their datastreams and made that the core of their success. They were the vanguard, but newer companies like are following their path. Whether it’s mining your personal biology, building maps from the shared experience of millions of travellers, or studying the URLs that people pass to others, the next generation of successful businesses will be built around data. The part of Hal Varian’s quote that nobody remembers says it all:

The ability to take data — to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it — that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.

Data is indeed the new Intel Inside.

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Great Hal Varian quote.

Great article.

Thank you for sharing!

Great article. A lot of the links in it are sources I'm familiar with, but there are a lot of new ones as well. For those interested in data science (or perhaps the more familiar Big Data) the article is well worth a complete read.

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