Big data, big future

Perry Stephenson in the UTS Data Arena. Photo by: Shane Lo

Perry Stephenson in the UTS Data Arena. Photo by: Shane Lo

In summary: 
  • The Master of Data Science and Innovation is a transdisciplinary, postgraduate degree where students from all academic backgrounds work to fuse quantitative and qualitative data
  • The degree aims to help students tackle complex real-world challenges, expand professional networks and develop speed in processing data

“We're collecting data on a scale we haven't seen before, and we don't really know what we're doing with it,” says Perry Stephenson, an electrical engineer and one of the first students undertaking UTS’s Master of Data Science and Innovation (MDSI).

For Stephenson, big data is big business. “I think the power industry is undergoing a major transformation and data science will play a pivotal role in the coming decades.

“There’s plenty of buzz around ‘smart’ grids being the next big thing, but they haven't really taken off. I don't think they're going away, and successful development of smart grid technologies is going to require people who are experts in power networks and data science. I'm hoping to be one of the first!”

Enter UTS. This year, the university launched the MDSI – a transdisciplinary, postgraduate degree where students from all academic backgrounds (including engineering, science, physics, mathematics, arts and more) work to fuse quantitative and qualitative data.

The degree aims to help students tackle complex real-world challenges, expand professional networks and develop speed in processing data, much of which is “missing” or “messy” data – numbers and information that tell a far richer story when a data scientist learns to account for human values as well as data values.

MDSI Course Coordinator Dr Theresa Anderson says active industry collaboration is key. As part of the 'real life' problem-based assessments under development, companies and non-government organisations are being invited to provide students with data they’ve put in the “too hard basket” and which students can use in the classroom.

“There is a need for creativity and ethical and critical thinking to co-exist in the classroom because data doesn’t speak for itself,” says Anderson.

And, in the business world, Anderson adds, “There is also a growing need for companies to seek out specialists who can engage with data, both ethically and innovatively.

“Companies want to, or need to, hire professionals who can work with data in those ways and with increasingly large data sets.”

Of course, the MDSI is not all about big data. Stephenson, in his first semester of study, had to complete a ‘quantified self’ assignment as part of the Data Science for Innovation subject. The assignment requires students to conduct their own individual projects and trials.

“For me that involved a six-week study into myself,” he recounts. “I tracked every step, every minute of sleep, every calorie eaten (or drunk), every calorie burned, and weighed myself every day.

“When I analysed the data I discovered some interesting things, like the fact I gained weight even though I burned more calories than I ate (I knew it!), and I need to sleep more.”

For Stephenson, the MDSI is more than just a degree. “All of the things I'm really excited about in 2015 have data science as a central element – self-driving cars, a new generation of space vehicles, field robotics or drones. Even things like Netflix and Twitter.

“Beyond that, data science is driving innovations and transformations in less shiny but really important areas like medicine, IT, marketing, engineering, even farming.

“I can’t think of a sector that won’t be transformed by data science. And I don’t just want to stand back and watch it happen without getting in on the action!”